New Voice: Caroline Carlson on The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Caroline Carlson is The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot (HarperCollins, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. 

There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

Magic Marks the Spot is the first installment in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are forthcoming in 2014 and 2015.

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?

I am sort of embarrassed to admit this to the internet at large, but before I wrote Magic Marks the Spot, I was not much of a reviser. In fact, I had never gone through a thorough, large-scale novel revision from start to finish.

For me, revising meant line editing—choosing the perfect words and sounds, and making sure each sentence read smoothly. If a manuscript had large-scale problems (and what early draft doesn’t?), I’d either try to rewrite the whole book from scratch or, more likely, I’d stuff it in a drawer and move on to something new. Something fresh. Something that would be absolutely perfect the first time out, so I’d never have to do any actual revision.

Revision meant hard work; it meant looking at my writing and acknowledging that it could be better, and I wasn’t particularly excited about acknowledging anything of the sort.

I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot during my final semester in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Since I wanted to complete an entire draft during those last five months of the program, I didn’t stop to revise too frequently, and when I reached the end, I knew I had a story that was worth pursuing. There was no way I was going to abandon this one in a drawer.

And besides, it wasn’t too messy, was it? Asking for other writers’ feedback wouldn’t be like dropping a goldfish into a pool full of hungry sharks—or, at least, I desperately hoped it wouldn’t be like that. So I sent my manuscript off to a wonderful group of writer friends and asked them what I could do to improve the story before I submitted it to agents.

I was sort of hoping that all my writer friends would say everything in the story was absolutely brilliant, and that any revision would be a blemish on a work of greatness—but, because my friends are smart writers and honest people, they didn’t say any such thing. They pointed out the places where they were confused and the characters they wanted to know more about.

Caroline’s bulletin board with bookmarks & cards

My advisor at VCFA, Martine Leavitt, had also sent me revision notes during our semester together. As I read over all of these comments, I realized that the hungry sharks were not in residence. Instead, I’d been given the gift of thoughtful feedback that was actually going to make my book stronger.

For the first time ever, I was excited to revise, because I could see that revision didn’t have to make me feel bad about my existing story; it could make me feel hopeful about how that story could grow in the future.

I spent a couple of months revising my draft with this first round of feedback in hand. I addressed most of my friends’ comments, but there were several good suggestions that I simply didn’t know how to tackle. Even though I knew I needed to make those changes to my book, I didn’t have any idea where to begin.

I eventually submitted the manuscript to agents when it was as strong as I could possibly make it on my own, though I knew by then that it could still be stronger.

My first letter from my editor was six single-spaced pages long—long enough to induce panic in a few other writers who caught a glimpse of it later. But I loved every word of it (really!) because it showed me that my editor could see my book’s potential; she looked at the manuscript in front of her and saw what it could become with some hard work. And she asked questions that helped me to see the entire book in a clearer light.

Once I’d spent a few weeks considering my editor’s notes, I realized that I was actually capable of making those impossible-sounding changes my friends had suggested earlier—but I’d have to be willing to revise more deeply than I’d ever attempted to before.

To revise for my editor, I printed out my manuscript and marked it up with a red pen, noting all the large and small changes I wanted to make. I drew big red Xs across entire scenes.

Then I opened a new, blank document on my computer and began to retype the book, transcribing the printed manuscript and diverging from it whenever it seemed necessary.

Drafts of Magic Marks the Spot and its sequel.

A lot of people I talk to are slightly horrified by my revision strategy—retyping a 300-page novel is not exactly a small proposition—but for me, it’s the easiest way to make big changes to a story. If I’m confined by the words in the existing document, I won’t feel free to make sweeping changes; the existing words will affect the new words I come up with.

If I don’t have anything in front of me except blank whiteness, though, I can write entirely new scenes that don’t automatically inherit the problems of earlier drafts. And I always have my printed manuscript to fall back on if I decide that I don’t want to make a sweeping change after all. As I retyped Magic Marks the Spot, I ended up rewriting about a third of it from scratch.

After that, I did a round of line edits for my editor, though those changes were small enough that I didn’t need to retype the entire manuscript again.

So, yes, revision does mean hard work. But it also means looking at the result of that hard work and realizing that the story on the page finally matches the story in your head, or at least it comes close. There’s not much that beats the feeling of finally nailing a scene you’ve been writing and rewriting for months. The prospect of revising a manuscript still intimidates me because I know exactly how much work it will require, but I also look forward to revision because I know it will bring my book much closer to being the story I wanted to tell in the first place.

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?

It’s no exaggeration to say that attending Vermont College of Fine Arts was the best thing I’ve done for my writing. It’s not that I think an MFA is a prerequisite for publication—it certainly isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But for the right person in the program that’s right for her, an MFA can be life-changing. And (I know this is going to sound crazy) it can even be a little bit practical.

Marked page from a very early draft of Magic Marks the Spot.

I learned a lot about the craft of writing during my time at VCFA, of course, and I could write a whole new blog post about the ways in which my writing grew stronger over my two years at Vermont. But what I really want to talk about are the skills I gained during those years that have continued to serve me well as a working writer.

First of all, I learned discipline. I learned how to sit down at my desk every day and write, even if I wasn’t feeling inspired. I had an almost-full-time day job, but I still had to meet my writing deadlines. Those deadlines taught me that I was capable of making writing a priority in my life, and that the work I produced during those times when I felt uninspired was actually pretty good.

I learned that once you show up at your computer and type the first word on the page, you are basically 95% of the way there.

I also learned a lot about receiving and responding to feedback. Remember that six-page letter my editor sent me in response to Magic Marks the Spot? It didn’t shake my confidence because I had received 20 similar letters from my advisors over the course of my MFA program. (And several of those 20 letters were much longer than six pages.)

At school, I got familiar with my emotional responses whenever an editorial letter arrived: first I’d freak out a little bit, then I’d give myself a few days to process the letter, and then I’d figure out how to move forward in response to the feedback I’d gotten.

Caroline’s writing space

During my time at VCFA, the “freakout” period got a lot shorter, and I’m now reasonably sure that nothing in an editorial letter will cause me to keel over and die on the spot.

I learned to trust myself as a writer. Although I’m pretty much guaranteed to make mistakes, I know now that I’m capable of fixing them, too. I learned that sometimes, you work really hard on a piece of writing only to have someone tell you that you need to start over.

And I know that when that happens to me again, I’ll be able to handle it because I’ve handled it before. I mean, it still won’t be fun, but at least I’ll know how much ice cream to buy to soothe my spirit. (Lots.)

The most important thing I learned is that the writing life is a thousand times more enjoyable with good friends by your side. The small world of children’s literature is full of some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve met, and I’m so glad we’re all in this together.

Caroline’s graduating class at VCFA, the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches

New Voice: A.B. Westrick on Brotherhood

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

A.B. Westrick is the first-time author of Brotherhood (Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

The year is 1867, and Richmond, Virginia, lies in ruins. 

By day fourteen-year-old Shadrach apprentices with a tailor and sneaks off for reading lessons with Rachel, a freed slave, at her school for African-American children. By night he follows his older brother to the meetings of a brotherhood, newly formed to support Confederate widows and grieving families like his. 

As the true murderous mission of the brotherhood—now known as the Ku Klux Klan—emerges, Shad is trapped between his pledge to them and what he knows is right. 

In this unflinching view of the bitter animosity that stemmed from economic and social upheaval in the South during the period of Reconstruction, it’s clear that the Civil War has ended, but the conflict isn’t over.

What inspired you to choose the particular 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?

Research photo of Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War

I drafted Brotherhood in first person, present tense, but on revision changed the manuscript to third person, past tense. Such a difference!

I love to draft in first person-present because it’s intense. It’s arresting. First person-present forces me to enter into my protagonist’s world and imagine his actions as if they are happening right now: I smell what he smells, and touch what he touches. I taste, see and hear the specific, concrete moments of his life.

To some extent, I experience his emotions while I’m writing, and can observe exactly what my own body is doing. Am I breathing or holding my breath? Curling my toes? Clutching the edge of my desk? Chewing on the inside of my lip… or my fingernail… or a pencil eraser?

First person-present demands a sense of immediacy that’s honest and real, and forces me to shed stereotypical concepts of who I think this character might be or become. Instead of an idea or symbol or construct, he becomes an individual.

But my first person-present version was over the top! My protagonist is an illiterate 14 year-old boy whose awful grammar is difficult to read. Sure, I created a strong voice with an honest cadence rolling on the page—I could hear him speak—but the choppiness of the dialect detracted from the story. I had to let it go.

Visit Kathi Appelt

I decided to keep his Southern dialect in passages of dialogue, and remove it from narrative sections, and I rewrote the story in third person. But even in the dialogue, there were times when I cleaned up the words, knowing that once the lilt of his speech was established, the reader would supply the Southern accent organically. Readers would hear him; they’d get it.

So for example, instead of writing something like, “we gonna git ’im,” I’d spell it correctly (“we’re going to get him”) and leave the pronunciation to the reader.

(By the way, it was my advisor at VCFA, Kathi Appelt, who helped me wrestle with these tense and point of view changes. Oh, that we could all have critique buddies like Kathi Appelt!)

When I switched to third person, I considered omniscient third, and decided that it created a greater sense of distance and perspective than I wanted. So I re-wrote in close-third. When the protagonist learns something, the reader learns it simultaneously and not before.

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?

I’m a debut author, so I’m still figuring out the business, and there’s a lot to figure out! You can put your whole day, every day, into social media and book promotion, but if you don’t love the process of writing, if you don’t write for the story and the language and the characters, and instead you write only for the business, well, I don’t know what to tell you. I wouldn’t be able to do it. For me, the writing of fiction comes first, the business second.

Visit A.B. Westrick

How did the MFA help me with the business? It helped me improve my writing! And when I was ready to pitch my manuscript, mentioning the MFA piqued my agent’s interest. But the writing had to speak for itself.

I remember that in my first phone call with the woman who is now my editor, she asked if I’d be willing to make significant revisions to the manuscript, and I said, “Yes, by all means.

After Vermont College, revision is my middle name.” Or I said something like that. (You know, I have no idea what I said. It was my first-ever conversation with a New York editor. I think I babbled a lot.)

But my point is that I think she felt better about taking a risk on me—a debut author, no track record—knowing that I had an MFA. The degree reassured her that I would approach revision requests professionally.

But even with the MFA, I think there’s a “don’t quit the day job” mentality in the world of writers, and that’s probably good advice. Writing doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. Many authors supplement their royalties with speaking engagements.

To aspiring authors, I’d say: don’t get an MFA because you think it will help you with the business. Get an MFA because it will make your writing better and will challenge you, and you’ll have to write so much that it will help you decide whether you’re cut out to be a writer. Whether you enjoy hours spent alone. Whether you love the process. Because if you don’t love it, and if there’s anything else that you could be happy with and make money doing, I’d suggest that you consider seeking the other thing rather than writing.

A.B.’s work space

Cynsational Notes

Of her workspace, A.B. reports, “I grew up with that lamp,
and inherited it when my parents downsized to a retirement community. My daughter did the painting over my desk; it’s her illustration of Mark Mathabane’s autobiography, Kaffir Boy.
(My daughter is a painter, living in Brooklyn.) The starfish inspires
me, the heater warms me in the winter, and books pile up faster than I
can read them.”

A.B. won the SCBWI Book Launch Award. She says: “My winning proposal included the plan that I would get students to write, revise, rehearse and record stories in the format of NPR’s ‘This American Life.’ Then I’d post the recordings on my website. I’ve had a blast doing this! My website now includes a page called ‘Students’ where you can listen to students reading their own writings.”

New Voice: Annemarie O’Brien on Lara’s Gift

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Annemarie O’Brien is the first-time author of Lara’s Gift (Knopf, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Vorontsov’s next kennel steward, breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar. 

But when Lara’s baby brother is born, she finds herself supplanted as her father decides to make her brother the next kennel steward. 

Lara has a special gift of understanding these incredible dogs—a gift that her father eyes with fear and superstition. 

Can Lara convince him to let her fulfill her destiny with the noble borzoi? And can she save her favorite dog, Zar, and the rest of the borzoi from a hungry pack of wolves threatening life on the estate?

Set in Imperial Russia, full of color and authenticity, this is a powerful story of one girl’s love for her dog—and her desire to fulfill her prophetic dreams and destiny.

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?

Lara’s Gift is a story I carried in my head for twenty years. In that time, I was passionate for anything Russian and read tons of Russian literature and history. I also spent ten years living and working in and around Russia. So many of the details and images I describe come from my own memories.

There were a few key books that helped me understand life on the noble country estate during the Imperial era: Life on the Country Estate by Priscilla Roosevelt (Yale University, 1995), Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia (Indiana University Press, 1993), and Observations on Borzoi by Joseph B. Thomas (Houghton Mifflin, 1912).

The biggest roadblock (don’t laugh!) I had was determining what kind of business the fictional Count Vorontsov owned. I didn’t want his money to come from the Tsar or some typical Russian business in caviar, fur, or vodka.

I kept telling myself, “It will come to me.”

Almost two years passed and I wasn’t any closer to finding an answer until I ordered a 1914 National Geographic magazine that featured Russia from cover to cover. In it, I read about the world-renowned Russian bell foundry industry and that’s when it clicked. My Count would own several bell foundries!

I also utilized the sound of the bells to evoke an often difficult to capture fifth sense, as well as to increase tension and show emotion.

As someone with an 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?

The best thing I ever did to develop my craft was to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In fact, I’d love to go back to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to do another round! I’ve no doubt I could improve my craft. There’s always room for growth. Even if you’re published!

Before I started VCFA, I asked a dozen writing teachers about the function of prologues. I never got a satisfactory answer, yet didn’t consider looking into it myself more deeply. Part of me didn’t think I could and another part of me wanted a quick and easy answer.

When I did my critical thesis on the function of prologues in YA fiction, I was amazed that with a little thought I came up with some good stuff that I used to anchor the opening in my debut novel, Lara’s Gift.

I had struggled with where to start my story until I realized what it needed was a prologue. A bolshoe thanks to Mal Peet for using one in Tamar! His prologue taught me how to use one in Lara’s Gift.

The best advice I can give students/graduates transitioning between school and publishing:

1) trust your gift;

2) give yourself goals/deadlines; and

3) never give up hope.

Don’t let one, two, or even dozens of rejections cripple you. Take what advice you’re given (or not given) and learn from it.

Don’t take the rejection personally and always move forward.

New Voice: Charlotte Gunnufson on Halloween Hustle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Charlotte Gunnufson is the first-time author of Halloween Hustle, illustrated by Kevan J. Atteberry (Two Lions, 2013). From the promotional copy:

In the dark, a funky beat. Something white with bony feet. Skeleton dancing up the street, doing the Halloween Hustle. 

Skeleton is dancing his way to a Halloween party—but as he grooves across town, he keeps stumbling, tumbling, and falling apart! 

Can Skeleton stay in one piece long enough to make it to the party?

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2013, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Surprised to debut in 2013? Thrilled!

Did it seem inevitable? No. Still, part of me believed it would happen, that it had to happen, because once I started writing again, I knew I couldn’t give it up.
I re-began writing in 2007, just before my 41st birthday.

I’d been published before. A poem about a duck. In an Archie’s comic book. Way back in elementary school. I wrote through my teens and into my mid-twenties. Then, I stopped writing for fifteen years for good reasons and poor excuses.

I stayed up late one night watching “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the story of a homeless father who struggles to find security for himself and his son. When I turned off the TV, I thought, “I have been such a whiner.” The next day, I re-began writing.

I sent out my first story in the spring of 2008, thinking, “I’m almost there!”

When that story, along with several others, didn’t get plucked from the slush pile, I decided to establish myself writing poems for children’s magazines. Easy peasy. Almost there.

That fall, having failed to sell a single line, I had an idea: I’d submit a craft project accompanied by a poem. Among the Halloween decorations, lay a skeleton Isaac had made in second grade. The dancing skeleton poem grew too long to be a poem.

I couldn’t decide what to cut. I wrote a story instead.

 In 2009, February 16th according to my “Submissions Record” spreadsheet, I sent Halloween Hustle to several publishers. A familiar thing happened.

Yep. Nothing.

But my first poem was accepted for publication in early 2009. Whew! Almost there.

In March, 2010, more than a year after I’d submitted the manuscript for Halloween Hustle, an editor from Marshall Cavendish sent the manuscript back. With whole pages crossed out. With lots of notes. With a letter saying it had potential for their list.

Yes! Really almost there!

I revised and re-revised and on April 23rd, two-and-a-half years after I’d re-begun, Marshall Cavendish acquired Halloween Hustle. Initially, the editor thought it would be published in the fall of 2012, but because of the illustrator’s busy schedule, the date was pushed to 2013.

Basically, now. Am I there, yet?

Six years have passed since I re-began writing. Many things have happened. Some things haven’t.
I’ve written a few hundred poems and short pieces and sold just over thirty of them. I’ve been lucky enough to have my work appear in Highlights, Highlights High Five and Hello, Cricket, Ladybug, Jack & Jill, Humpty Dumpty, and Turtle magazines.

Marshall Cavendish was acquired by Amazon. I still have my wonderful editor. Illustrator Kevan Atteberry has generously shared his work with me to help promote the book. We’re Facebook friends. I’ve written dozens of stories. I haven’t sold another manuscript.

How did I keep the faith? How do I keep the faith? My critique group, SCBWI, magazine pieces, plodding perseverance, and hope.

In Halloween Hustle, Skeleton falls down and falls apart, but…

Skeleton doesn’t groan or whine.

Binds bones together with tape and twine.

Bounces up, feeling fine…

Skeleton dances like he’s never going to fall down or fall apart again. That’s not foolishness. That’s the sort of faith writers have to have.

I’ve said “The Pursuit of Happyness” inspired me to re-begin writing. It also keeps me going. The movies final message: life is not about achieving happiness but pursuing it.

The joy truly is in the journey. A while back, I was listening to NPR and a guest cited a study which found we are happiest not when we’re so far from our goal that it seems unreachable and not, surprisingly enough, when we reach that goal. We are happiest when we are almost there.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

How am I promoting Halloween Hustle?

Leaping in and learning as I go! With as much time and energy as can possibly be spared from family, friends, sleep, and, yes, writing.

Here’s why: When Halloween Hustle was acquired in 2010, after two-and-a-half years of struggle, I thought I’d strolled onto Easy Street on my way to Piece of Cake Café.

Nope. Despite a few maybe-um-nos to some other stories, I haven’t sold another manuscript.

I’m determined to think of this as a blessing in disguise. If I had another book waiting in the wings, I don’t think I’d be as dedicated to the success of this book. Halloween Hustle is an only child. I’m the helicopter parent.

My macro-strategy: Tap into what makes the book unique and then promote it in way that’s unique but still feels natural.
My micro-strategy: Create a big buzz with lots of little bees. Preferably—pun alert!—free bees.
(Any advice I can offer is sprinkled throughout and aptly humbled by parentheses.)

Online efforts: I’ve set up accounts and author profiles on Amazon Author Central, GoodReads, Shelfari, Library Thing, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest and SCBWI (not exactly free, but worth every penny).

I’ve researched kid-lit blogs where my book might be reviewed. (Start now! There are oodles of terrific blogs and you can accidently learn a lot from them.)

I created a list of blogs (many blogs list other blogs!), read every review policy (do this!), and researched how to query bloggers.

Then, as professionally, politely, and enthusiastically as possible, I asked bloggers if they’d be open to receiving a copy of my book for review. (One of my biggest I-must-be-on-Easy-Street mistakes: Assuming that bloggers would be delighted to review my book. After all, it’s free! Reality check: Bloggers are busy. They are inundated with requests. Read this perfect primer.)

I hired a designer for my website. But before this, I examined scads of author websites, asking myself, what works? What doesn’t? What do kids, parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, etc., want in an author website?

I read expert opinions. (Start now!)

I “met” my designer, Taylor Ridling, on LinkedIn. I looked at her work, sent a comprehensive plan, and signed a contract. (Develop a vision for your website. Get a contract with a completion date.)

I wrote the trailer “script” and song “lyrics.” Then, I hired the ridiculously talented Alisabeth Von Presley to create the book trailer and dance video. Dance video? That’s what I mean by “unique but still feels natural.”

Real space efforts: I’m launching the book with a Halloween Hustle Dance Party! Halloween décor, music, costumed dancers and helpers, crafts, coloring pages from illustrator Kevan Atteberry, word puzzles, a chance to chalk the walk, complimentary bookmarks, and actual dancing!

Attendees are invited to do the “Halloween Hustle” and favorites like “Monster Mash” and “Purple People Eater.” I’m adapting the event for various venues.

Am I enjoying the process or does it seem like a chore?

On “Dancing with the Stars,” contestants say they knew being on the show would be hard but it’s so much harder than they ever dreamed—and so much more fulfilling.

That’s how promoting a book is. Exhilarating. Exhausting. I feel confident and clueless by turns. It’s a bit like being a (helicopter) parent.

(Figure out what makes your story unique and run with it! Think big! Study hard! Start early! Ask your critique group for ideas and support. If you can’t pay them back, then pay it forward.)

New Voice: Amy Christine Parker on Gated

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Amy Christine Parker is the first-time author of Gated (Random House, 2013)(author blog)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Do the gates keep the unchosen out or the chosen in?

In Mandrodage Meadows, life seems perfect. The members of this isolated suburban community have thrived under Pioneer, the charismatic leader who saved them from their sad, damaged lives. 

Lyla Hamilton and her parents are original members of the flock. They moved here following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, looking to escape the evil in the world. Now seventeen, Lyla knows certain facts are not to be questioned:

Pioneer is her leader.

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

Since there was interest from several publishing houses for Gated, my agent held a best bids auction. This means that she asked the interested editors to come up with their best bid for the book and send it to her by 4 p.m. the day of the auction. At that time she and I were supposed to go over any/all offers and decide which one would be best for the book.

It’s a pretty exciting and heady thing to know that your book is wanted by more than one publishing house, but also very nerve-wracking since you have no idea until the end of the auction day who your publisher might be or if the interested publishers will actually offer.

I remember having this wild fear that none of the ones who’d said that they really wanted it would respond to the auction and instead of having more than one offer to consider, I’d have none.

But then the first offer came in early in the day, and it was a good one. I was the kind of excited that feels a little like being sick…my hands were shaking and I could barely think straight.

I had been sort of Twitter stalking the editor of this particular house and really liked what I knew about her, but truth be told, I still had my eye on another house (one who’d published many of my favorite authors and had expressed strong interest in Gated’s sequel which I very much wanted to write). I was really, really hoping that they’d come in with a competitive offer.

But as the day went on and other houses responded, this house was very, very silent. I started to worry that maybe they’d changed their minds and were pulling out of the auction.

When three thirty rolled around and it was time to pick up my kids and still no word was in from my favored house, I was really excited that the book would be published for sure, but a little disappointed that this particular house hadn’t put in a bid.

I was sitting in front of my kids’ school listening to them call out car rider numbers when my agent called at five ‘til four—and I’m not exaggerating here at all, it really was that close.

“Did you get my email?” she asked.

“No, I’m picking up my kids, why?” I answered.

I was sure that we were going to just go over accepting that first strong offer of the day. This meant Gated would be published, but there would definitely not be a sequel since this editor felt the book was perfect on its own. I was nervous about officially saying yes, a little sad that my characters wouldn’t be getting to appear in one more book, and completely excited to finally know who my publisher was.

“Random House made an offer,” my agent said instead, totally throwing me for a loop. It came in a few minutes ago.

She proceeded to tell me what it was for and at first I thought the advance amount was for both books, and it was an amazing number, my dream number. “That much for both, wow!” I said, my heart beating a mile a minute.

And I remember she sort of laughed and said, “No, no, for each.”

At which point I almost dropped the phone.

It was so much more than what I was expecting, but as it turns out, almost exactly what my agent thought it would sell for…she just hadn’t admitted it to me so that I didn’t get my hopes up too high.

I have no idea how the phone call ended, but I do remember trying to be calm until we hung up and then screaming my head off as I drove up to the pickup spot to get my kids. It is the one and only moment in my life that absolutely felt like something out of a movie, surreal and utterly wonderful.

When my kids got into the car I was shaking so hard, they thought I wouldn’t be able to drive home, but somehow I did. My husband brought me home some flowers and we celebrated that night by going to a Teppanyaki place for dinner (my family’s go-to food for big occasions).

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?

Tapping into my protagonist, Lyla’s, voice wasn’t easy at all. She’s a girl who’s grown up in an apocalyptic cult who’s very much a reluctant fighter at first which is very, very different from who I am as a person, so at first I didn’t understand her very well.

Actually, it was my very struggle to understand her point of view that made me want to write Gated in the first place.

What helped me most in finding Lyla’s voice was figuring out her back story and how she came to be in this cult. Once I knew how that happened I had a better sense of what she was feeling and how she would react to those around her.

As for her actual speech patterns…she isn’t a typical teenager. She lives in a world that’s pretty isolated, so she’s not up on current slang. The only slang she does know she got from watching the few movies that her cult’s leader allowed the group to watch, all of which are from before 2010, so her teenage-speak is a cross between a very adult tone and very, very common/older slang.

As for the possibility of magic having a place in the development of her voice…I suppose it sort of does. There is something mysterious that happens, at least for me, as I write where my character goes from being a name on the page to almost real—at least as real as someone can get without actually appearing. I think it comes from spending so much time trying to see things the way they would, from picturing what they look like and their go to expressions/gestures, and from meditating on that character for hours and hours every day for months, if not years. There isn’t really a way to tap into it, it just grows organically.

The one thing I always do that really helps me is to create a character profile and fill it with back story, a picture of what they look like to me, their hobbies, music/movie/book preferences, clothing, and food favorites. I don’t use everything I put in the profile in the book, but I do reread it often to remind myself of who they are when I’m stuck while drafting.

New Voice: Pat Zietlow Miller on Sophie’s Squash

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Pat Zietlow Miller is the first-time author of Sophie’s Squash, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Schwartz & Wade, 2013). From the promotional copy:

On a trip to the farmers’ market with her parents, Sophie chooses a squash, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. 

From then on, Sophie brings Bernice everywhere, despite her parents’ gentle warnings that Bernice will begin to rot.

As winter nears, Sophie does start to notice changes…. What’s a girl to do when the squash she loves is in trouble?

With absolutely delightful text by Pat Zietlow Miller and downright hilarious illustrations from Anne Wilsdorf, Sophie’s Squash will be a fresh addition to any collection of autumn books.

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?

Sophie’s Squash was inspired by two adorable things my youngest daughter did when she was quite small. So my challenge was to take those two true memories and add enough fictional material to turn the story into a book with an actual plot that was worth reading.

Because by themselves, the memories were sweet, but they were definitely not a story. Here’s how it all went down.

Sonia & Bernice

Memory one: I was grocery shopping with my daughter, Sonia. She was small enough where she could still sit in the front basket of the cart, and she often chose items from the main portion of the cart to hold.

When we got to the checkout line, I busily unloaded our purchases onto the conveyor belt. But I couldn’t find the butternut squash I was sure I had put in the cart. I turned around to look again and Sonia was holding it like a baby. She held it all the way home, drew a face on it and treated it like a doll until I sneaked it out of her room many days later because I was afraid it would rot. (I did take a photo for posterity first.)

Memory two: A year or so later, our cat, Lucy, passed away. We planted a tree and sprinkled her ashes around its roots. When we finished, Sonia looked at me with hopeful eyes and said, “Now, will a new kitty grow?”

My first attempt at the story focused on the first memory with my main character, Sophie, falling in love with a squash and her parents’ unsuccessful attempts to direct her affection to something more enduring.

That version got a few positive editorial comments, but it wasn’t until I added elements of my second memory – death and the hope that things we love might return to us somehow – that the story really took flight.
In the end, it was focusing on the feelings my two Sonia memories inspired rather than exactly what she did and said that led to Sophie’s Squash coming together as a viable book.

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

I learned to write picture books because I started out knowing I didn’t know how.

I’d written a lot in my life, working as a newspaper reporter and columnist, a magazine editor and a corporate communicator. But I knew picture books had a style and structure all their own.

So, I read. I brought piles of picture books home from the library and spent weekends reading them and analyzing them. Once I found an author I especially liked, I read everything he or she had written and tried to figure out why it worked. I still do this.

My natural strengths were that I’d always had a bit of a way with words and a very strong appreciation for language and the feelings it can evoke. And, no matter what format I’m writing for, I am a stickler for tight, vivid writing.

My other natural strength was that I didn’t go in thinking writing a winner of a picture book would be easy. I was always looking to learn from other writers and apply those lessons to my writing. All that takes time, and I was definitely willing to put the time in.

My greatest challenge is probably plot. In the nonfiction writing I’d done before, I was quoting people and writing about something that had actually happened.

In fiction, you make up what happens, and it generally follows a story arc. Learning the basic story arc (initial incident, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement) was easy enough, but adding in the items to make the story compelling – so the reader cares what happens to the characters and wants to keep turning the pages – took lots of redrafting and rewriting. Usually, just when you think you have it, you realize you don’t.

Anyhow, I’m very glad that Sophie’s Squash got to where it needed to be and is now a real book in real bookstores and on real library shelves.

Pat’s cats — Vince (gray and white) and Sunny (orange)

Cynsational Notes

Pat Zietlow on If I Were a “Glee” Librarian from Read, Write, Repeat. Peek: “Below are the books I’d give each character if I were a “Glee” librarian. Each title is a link to a post about why this book is just right for that particular person.”

New Voice: K.A. Barson on 45 Pounds (More or Less)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

K.A. Barson is the first-time author of 45 Pounds (More or Less)(Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Here are the numbers of Ann Galardi’s life:

She is 16.
And a size 17.
Her perfect mother is a size 6.
Her Aunt Jackie is getting married in 2 months, and wants Ann to be a bridesmaid.
So Ann makes up her mind: Time to lose 45 pounds (more or less).

Welcome to the world of informercial diet plans, wedding dance lessons, endless run-ins with the cutest guy Ann’s ever seen—and some surprises about her not-so-perfect mother.

And there’s one more thing—it’s all about feeling comfortable in your own skin—no matter how you add it up!

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

Photo of K.A. by Hal Folk
More on Martine

I’d have to say that my most influential writing teacher was Martine Leavitt.

As my second semester advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she made me think about characters and motivation and how it relates to plot more than I ever had before.

Before I even started the semester, Martine had me write a letter to her from my main character. The letter needed to reflect the character’s voice and contain both an abstract and concrete desire.

For some reason, I always balk at writing exercises, even though historically, they’ve helped me a lot. I did it though, and it really solidified where the story was going.

In my contemporary work, I sometimes have a tendency to let my characters wander in circles and naval gaze. They may do things, but that doesn’t mean those actions have meaning or purpose in the story. Martine encouraged me to really look at not only what my characters do, but why. Now for every project I start, I ask these questions to my characters:

  • What do you want? Even when I think I know, I still need to probe deeper. What do you really want—acceptance, love, friendship? What will you do to get it? The quest for a certain feeling is the emotional arc, and the action creates plot.
  • What happens if you don’t get it? It’s the stakes that keep readers invested and turning pages. It doesn’t have to be dangerous, but it needs to be important.

Having a firm grasp on what characters want, how they try to get it, and how they react when something or someone gets in their way, helps me know what happens next.

Sometimes, though, simply asking the question isn’t enough. Sometimes I just don’t know. So that’s when those writing exercises that don’t seem like they’re going to help actually do.

Sometimes the only way to get to the heart of the story is to step out of it and spend time with the characters somewhere beyond the pages of the draft, using things like letters, interviews, journal entries, and scenes outside of this story.

In my first workshop at VCFA, another faculty member helped me discover the motivations of a secondary character that was a little flat. That workshop leader, whose initials are C.L.S., asked me to interview that character. That exercise uncovered some hidden resentment toward my main character that I didn’t know existed. Those feelings helped shape my revision. I now had reasons behind the actions.

Motivation propels the plot. Once I learned that, I found plot much less baffling. Every character wants something. If it’s in line with the main character, they’re probably an ally. If their desires are in contrast with the protagonist, they’re probably one of the antagonists.

I know this is basic stuff, but really all writing concepts are basic. It’s putting them all together that’s hard. Good writers and teachers know and do this. Because of their generosity, now I do too.

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?

When I’m writing, I tend to rely a lot on humor. Because my debut novel 45 Pounds (More or Less) stems from being self-conscious, a certain level of self-deprecating humor naturally arises.

The problem with humor is that it can dilute or lighten a more serious topic. With my book, I wanted to lighten the serious topic. It’s about weight and body image. I didn’t want my character to dwell in this heavy place—both literally and figuratively—the whole time.

But every time I choose funny, I lose a little of the emotional depth.

Humor needs to be carefully placed. It should give a reprieve from heartbreak or a break the tension from an emotional scene.

It’s important to allow the reader to feel the full effect of the pain before cutting it with something funny though.

What makes something funny? I don’t know if something is funny to readers, but if it makes me laugh, it usually makes it into the draft. (I say draft because it doesn’t always make it to the final round.) The unexpected is what usually cracks me up.

When writing, I try to think about what would make this scene or conversation embarrassing or different. Sometimes the characters naturally do those things based on their motivation and personality. It’s wonderful when that happens, but if it doesn’t, there are books that can help.

One is The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus (Silman-James Press, 1994) and How To Write Funny: Add Humor To Every Kind of Writing edited by John B. Kachuba (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

The latter is a collection of essays by some of funniest writers of our time. I also study sitcoms and movies.

How many other professionals can be working while being entertained and laughing?

That’s just one of the many reasons I love being a writer.

Cynsational Notes

K.A. Barson from Note: audio name reading and novel reading. See also K.A. at Skype an Author Network.

Check out this video feature with K.A. from Ed Spicer at Spicy Reads.

New Voice & Giveaway: Sara Kocek on Promise Me Something

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sara Kocek
is the first-time author of Promise Me Something
(Albert Whitman Teen/Open Road Media, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Reyna didn’t mean to become friends with Olive Barton . . .

But when Olive kept talking after the lunch bell, Reyna didn’t say no, and she didn’t stop Olive when she followed her into the parking lot after school either. 

Olive is blunt, headstrong, and unapologetically honest—nothing like Reyna’s other friends, or anyone Reyna’s ever met. But as Reyna begins to drift apart from her childhood clique, she finds herself growing closer to Olive.

Then Olive tells Reyna her secret, which changes everything. And as Reyna weighs her choices, she must find the courage to decide what 
really matters…before she loses Olive forever.

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?

In college, one of my professors divided all writers into two categories: diamond polishers and swamp drivers. Diamond polishers have to make each paragraph shine before they feel ready to move onto the next paragraph. Swamp drivers plow straight through their drafts and go back later to clean up the mess.

I confess to being a diamond polisher. I revise my work almost constantly as part of my drafting process. I write a paragraph. Then I revise it. Then I revise it again. Finally—when I don’t hate it—I write the next paragraph.

So by the time I reach the end of my first draft, my manuscripts are already fairly clean—at least on a sentence level.

This was all fine and dandy before I got a book deal.

When I received my editorial letter for Promise Me Something, I felt a rush of dread. Suddenly, for the first time, I was being asked to make revisions that spanned across the entire book.

It’s one thing to revise a clunky paragraph or a poorly written scene—I can handle that. I’m fine with revisions made in isolation. But my editor raised questions that were bigger than a single scene. She rightly pointed out inconsistencies through the book at large, including character motivation, pacing, and other fundamentals.

In short, she did all the things a good editor is supposed to do. And I quietly freaked out.

So I did what everyone recommended: I took a few days to let the feedback settle, and then I went back and read her letter again. Lo and behold, on the second read, it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming. In fact, the more I dived into the manuscript, the more manageable her suggestions seemed.

In the end, the process was incredibly instructive for me. Sure, I had to put on my swamp driver gloves and dig up a few pieces of the manuscript, making a bit of a mess along the way. But now I feel much better equipped to write—and revise—my next book.

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?

Sara Kocek & Katie Bayerl

When I finished my MFA program in 2010, I knew I didn’t want to let go of the momentum I’d worked so hard to build. I finally had a finished manuscript, and people in my program were full of suggestions about who to query. So even though I was terrified, I took the plunge and sent out my first batch of queries to my five top-choice agents.

Amazingly, two of them wrote back within the same week! With rejections, that is. Fortunately, the other three requested the full manuscript.

Out of those three, two invited me to revise and resubmit. One—Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company—said that she had some “concerns” about the manuscript but invited me to come “talk things through” in person.

At that point I still lived in NYC, so I jumped at the opportunity and scheduled an appointment.

This began a long journey of revising and drafting. You see, the manuscript that I queried about was not Promise Me Something. It was a different novel—a middle grade novel. And the problem with this middle grade novel was that it didn’t quite have an audience. It wobbled between middle grade and YA in a way that made it neither.

Sarah liked it, but she wanted to know if I had anything else—anything solidly YA. At that point, Promise Me Something was all of 50 pages, but I sent everything I had and she encouraged me to finish the book. So, for more than a year, I revised my middle grade novel and drafted Promise Me Something. And in the end, that was the one Sarah decided to represent.

Of course, along the way, there were many back and forth emails with Sarah’s assistant, Logan Garrison. In fact, Logan was the one who read my initial query and requested more pages. She was my champion from the very beginning. Through it all, I absolutely loved (and still love!) communicating with Logan. Her emails are like a cup of chamomile tea—they calm my jittery nerves and put me at ease. While my manuscript was on submission, she sent me updates every step of the way without me having to ask. (This was great because I’m super self-conscious about not wanting to pester people.) And when Promise Me Something eventually sold, Logan was there to share in my excitement and talk me through all my questions and concerns.

My advice for other writers seeking agents is simple—Find an agent whose communication style meshes well with your own. You don’t want to feel like you’re constantly bugging your agent or that you’re low on his or her priority list. And while you’d be lucky to nab a big-name agent, don’t discount newer agents who are just beginning to build their own lists—they have more time and headspace to dedicate to your career.

Most of all, look for an agent who is respectful and makes you feel important—because you are!

Don’t miss Sara Polsky’s tour stop tomorrow at The Writing Barn.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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New Voice: J.K. Rock on Camp Boyfriend

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

J.K. Rock is the YA writing partnership of sister-in-laws Joanne and Karen Rock and the talent behind the Camp Boyfriend series (Spencer Hill, 2013)(discussion guide)(educational resources)(pre-sale). From the promotional copy:

They said it couldn’t be done, but geeky sophomore Lauren Carlson transformed herself into a popular girl after moving to a new school half-way across the country. Amazing what losing your braces and going out for cheerleading will do. 

Only trouble is, the popular crowd is wearing on Lauren’s nerves and she can’t wait to return to summer camp where she’s valued for her brain instead of her handsprings. She misses her old friends and most of all, her long time camp-only boyfriend, Seth. 

This year she intends to upgrade their relationship to year-round status once she’s broken up with her new, jock boyfriend, Matt. He doesn’t begin to know the real her, a girl fascinated by the night sky who dreams of discovering new planets and galaxies.

But Matt isn’t giving her up without a fight. As he makes his case to stay together, Lauren begins to realize his feelings run deeper than she ever would have guessed. What if the guy she thought she was meant to be with forever isn’t really The One? 

Returning to Camp Juniper Point was supposed to ground her uprooted life, but she’s more adrift than ever. Everything feels different and soon Lauren’s friends are turning on her and both guys question what she really wants. 

As summer tensions escalate, Lauren wonders if she’s changed more than she thought. Will her first big discovery be herself?

What is it like, to be a debut author (or illustrator or author-illustrator) in 2013? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

K: Being a debut author is a hold-on-tight, don’t-let-go, thrill-of-your-life ride. I love the sense of accomplishment in seeing my imagination made real–an actual book that others can read and hopefully love. There’s no greater feeling.

The strong sense of community and support from fellow authors, bloggers, reviewers and the fans of our series prequel novella, Camp Kiss, isn’t as much a surprise as it is a revelation.

Writing can sometimes feel isolating. Yet once I began attending workshops, conferences, and interacting on social media, I realized that the world is brimming with amazing, talented people, including, most importantly, my incredible co-author and sister-in-law, Joanne.

J: I feel very fortunate to have sold a project with a dear friend who happens to be tremendously creative and talented. Sharing the workload with such a smart, inspiring person has been a non-stop joy. That alone makes my 2013 YA debut much different from books I’ve sold in the past under my own name.

But another key difference to debuting in 2013 is the vast access to readers through social media. The social media aspect of our promotion has been really rewarding for the instant, easy communication with readers. On the other hand, setting up all new homes for J.K. Rock online has been a challenge! We wanted to be everywhere that readers are, and that’s a tall order today.

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?

Joanne with Duchess

J: Lauren’s voice came to us in stages.

We had one vision of her early on in the creative process, but it shifted and focused more as we wrote so that we had a clearer idea of her at the end of the book, which meant we had to go back for some tightening in the revision stage but we’re very happy with her voice.

One reason that she was a challenging voice to find is her dual nature. She experienced a real shift in perceptions and life experiences when she moved from New York to Texas and started to make new friends and find new interests.

Lauren is actually searching hard for her voice in Camp Boyfriend, and we wanted to make that search feel authentic.

K: As an eighth grade teacher and maintaining close friendships with my former students as they’ve grown up, has helped me to hear lots of young adult voices.

What I’ve learned is that each is distinct and there is no one-size-fits-all YA voice. Each teenager sounds the way he or she does because of their unique experiences and personalities.

When it came to writing Lauren, we let her life guide us in how she would sound without worrying about whether it fit a certain expectation. That isn’t the reality I know in working with young adults.

Karen with her writing staff

My advice to YA authors is to find every opportunity to interact with teenagers in authentic ways, and, most importantly, to listen. They have so much to say that we need to hear. Let them do the talking so that your mind can take notes.

New Voice & Giveaway: Allyson Valentine on How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Allyson Valentine is the first-time author of How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend (Philomel, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Sophomore Nora Fulbright is the most talented and popular new cheerleader on the Riverbend High cheer squad. 

Never mind that she used to be queen of the nerds—a chess prodigy who answered every question first, aced every test and repelled friends at every turn—because this year, Nora is determined to fully transition from social pupa to full blown butterfly, even if it means dumbing down her entire schedule. 

But when funny, sweet and very cute Adam moves to town and steals Nora’s heart with his untra-smarts and illegally cute dimple, Nora has a problem. How can she prove to him that she’s not a complete airhead? 

Nora devises a seemingly simple plan to barter her way into Adam’s classes that involves her classmates, friends—and her older brother Phil’s award-winning AP history paper. But soon, Nora can barely keep track of her trades, and struggles to stay in control of her image.

In the end, the only thing that can save Nora is a chess tournament—that she has to compete in wearing her cheerleading uniform. Can she prove to everyone that she can be both a butterfly and a nerd? 

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?

Allyson writes wherever she can.

It was the spring of 2012 during the final round of revisions for How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend that we received my husband’s diagnosis.

Evan, love of my life, has Frontotemporal dementia, a brain disease that is steadily turning him into a giant toddler before it succeeds in taking him away from us altogether.

It was the first time I slipped a writing deadline. Sit in the chair? Focus on writing? How?

For the first few weeks following Evan’s diagnosis, I walked around in pajamas, zombie-like. The kids missed school. Each day, at breakfast, we took turns being the first to cry. My days were spent finding doctors for Evan. Sorting out insurance. Figuring out social security since Evan, who had been unemployed for six months, would never work again.

The greatest part of each day was spent applying emotional Crazy Glue to my kids and my husband in an effort to keep it all together. How was I ever going to have the time and emotional energy to complete my revisions?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of the practice called Mindfulness Meditation, wrote a book called Full Catastrophe Living.

The title of the book comes from the film “Zorba the Greek” when Zorba explains the life he is living:

“Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”

The premise of Kabat-Zinn’s work is that we all live “the full catastrophe,” and a meditation practice better enables us to deal with the inevitable crap that is flung our way.

The only way for me to complete my revisions was to practice Full Catastrophe Writing. I forced myself to put aside my grief, sit down and go to the page.

And a wonderful thing happened. In returning to my work I found an escape from the catastrophic events that had become part of everyday life. Writing slowed my breath. It made me laugh. It gave me hope. Writing became my meditation.

As the fog has begun to lift, life has become busier than ever. I am faced with the same conundrum that faces all writers with over-committed lives. How do we find time to write?

I follow some basic rules:

Arthur helps Allyson write

1. Expand the definition of “writing time.” I keep chalk in my car and when I’m stopped at a light, or waiting for a kid to emerge from school, I jot notes on my dashboard. Messy, but highly effective.

I give myself credit for these tiny bursts of creativity, no matter how short they are. These days, even time spent walking my dogs in the woods, or washing dishes, or folding laundry counts as writing time if I use that time to think about my work, because that thinking eventually translates into words on the page.

2. Schedule your writing time as though it were an appointment. My Day Planner is not just littered with notes about who needs to be where, when. Interspersed in and among the other ‘to-do’ items are the words ‘writing time.’ If I do not schedule time to write, I do not write.

3. Set yourself up for success. I know writers who strive for a certain word count each week, or a specific number of scenes. I’ve tried that, and when I come up short I feel bad about myself.

Now, success for me is that I showed up when I said I would, regardless what I accomplish in that time. And if all hell breaks loose and my writing time is subsumed by the needs of my family? I am gentle with myself. The missed writing time was hard enough to take, I don’t deserve to be beaten up about it, too.

4. Allow reading to qualify as writing time. I read like a writer, always looking for ways to improve my craft. In fact, reading is a necessary part of my development as a writer. I give myself a gold star for writing whenever I’ve had time to hunker down with a good book.

Allyson and Kado

5. Get over the need for a harmonic convergence of light, space, and creative energy. Once, I needed to have quiet in order to write. I needed to burn a candle. I had to be totally present to get into my writing head. Those days are gone.

At this very moment my fourteen-year-old son is perfecting his backward slide down the banister. My dog is trying to get into my lap. My husband is wandering around the room muttering something about “Star Trek.” And here comes dog number two. If I waited for the time and ambiance to be perfect, I would never write.

A final rule I live by is this: be patient. All too soon my kids will be out of the house. My husband, sadly, will be gone. I suspect I’ll also be down a pet or two.

The quantity and ferocity of day-to-day catastrophes will lighten—good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as my dad always says. And when that time comes, I will look back at the life I am living now and marvel that I got anything done.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

A friend once said to me, “You seem like one of those people who good things happen to.” Obviously not all the time. But I do feel incredibly blessed when hardships are book-ended with miracles.

My publishing story is one of those “no way!” tales.

Way. I did not find my editor, my editor found me.

I attended our annual Western Washington retreat, Writing on the Water, where sixty or so other writers and I attended fabulous workshops offered by two marvelous editors.

At a workshop on voice led by Penguin editor Jill Santopolo, we were asked to write in the voice of a homeless kid, a prep school kid or a cheerleader. The idea was that the voice should be recognizable without ever mentioning anything about being homeless, in prep school or leading cheers.

I chose to go the cheerleader route, writing a scene in which a cheerleader was stuck feeding breakfast to her much younger step-brother. When Jill solicited for volunteers to read their work aloud, I raised my hand. The piece I’d written was pretty funny if I do say so myself. And I really liked the character of both the cheerleader and her brother.

As I left the classroom, Jill stopped me. “You should really do something with that cheerleader character.”

Like what. Write a cheerleader novel?

Hah! I tried out for the cheerleading squad at my junior high and didn’t get selected. Not that I harbor a grudge or anything, but there was no way I would ever write a book with a cheerleader protagonist. Unless she got a terrible disease or something.

When I’d returned home from the retreat I received a phone call from Jill. “It’s such a crazy coincidence,” she said, “but Michael Green [President and Publisher at Philomel] was just in my office where he shared a concept for a cheerleader novel. He wanted to know if I knew anyone who could write a great cheerleader voice. What do you think?”

What did I think? “I’m in!” Seriously? It was like having the hottest guy at school call and ask me to the prom. Or at least it was what I imagine that would have been like.

Jill and her amazing assistant Julia Johnston shared with me a basic outline. I loved it. I created the characters and the subplots, and wove together a story I’m really happy with. And—spoiler alert—the cheerleader protagonist doesn’t get a disease.

The plot thickens. Jill’s assistant Julia, with whom I did most of my revising, left Penguin when we were in the final stages of revision. Every writer’s nightmare, right?

Thankfully Jill was fully on board, totally supportive, and looks at us! We have a book! As for what became of Julia, she joined ICM as assistant to Heather Schroder, a truly delightful (and crazy smart) agent. Julia introduced me to Heather, and we’re working together on my next book.

Miracles do happen!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two copies of How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend by Allyson Valentine (Philomel, 2013) from Cynsations. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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