New Voice: Liz Fichera on Hooked

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Liz Fichera is the first-time author of Hooked (HarlequinTEEN, Jan. 29, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Get hooked on a girl named Fred…

HE said: Fred Oday is a girl? Why is a girl taking my best friend’s spot on the boy’s varsity golf team?

SHE said: Can I seriously do this? Can I join the boys’ team? Everyone will hate me – especially Ryan Berenger.

HE said: Coach expects me to partner with Fred on the green? That is crazy bad. Fred’s got to go – especially now that I can’t get her out of my head. So not happening.

SHE said: Ryan can be nice, when he’s not being a jerk. Like the time he carried my golf bag. But the girl from the rez and the spoiled rich boy from the suburbs? So not happening.

But there’s no denying that things are happening as the girl with the killer swing takes on the boy with the killer smile…

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

The main protagonist in my story, Fred (short for Fredricka), came to me like most of my protagonists often do: when I least expected it. I was driving down a long stretch of mostly desolate desert road not far from my house in Phoenix, Arizona, and this fearless Native American girl popped into my head and started talking to me.

Pecos Road is significant in the novel & where inspiration first struck Liz.

Since my home in Phoenix borders the Gila River Indian Community, I decided that Fred had to be Gila. Before I started crafting a story around Fred, I spent a lot of time getting to know her—her likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, what she wanted out of life, and what she didn’t want.

I talked with several of my Native American girlfriends, just to make sure I was getting Fred. I realized that after spending a lot of time with Fred inside my head, I really liked this girl and I needed to tell her story. The details and other characters grew from there.

Interestingly, it was harder for me to understand the secondary characters, even if they’re backgrounds are more similar to mine. I think I wrote and rewrote Hooked at least six times before I was satisfied.


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 found my agent the old-fashioned way. I researched agents thoroughly, picked my Top 10, and then dutifully sent out my perfectly worded and agonized-over query. And then I was immediately rejected by all except two.

Meet Liz Fichera

I clicked with Holly Root and she got my book and my writing so I knew almost two minutes into my first conversation with her that she would be “The One.”

As time wore on, I was never more correct about my choice. That’s because the book that I initially queried didn’t sell right away. In fact, Hooked was my third book but it was the first book to find a traditional publisher. Fortunately I found an agent who has stuck with me through thick and thin and didn’t give up when we didn’t get an immediate sale.

It’s so important to find an agent who’s gonna stick with you and not drop you like a hot potato when don’t land a deal right out of the gate. You’ve got to believe in each other. You’ve got to act like a team. If you can find an agent like this, then she will be more likely to find the right editor and the right publisher for your book.

Take your time finding the right fit, if you decide to pursue traditional publishing. Looking back, it was good that my first book didn’t sell because what I have now was totally worth the (very long) wait.

New Voice: C.J. Flood on Infinite Sky

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

C.J. Flood is the first-time author of Infinite Sky (Simon & Schuster U.K., 2013). From the promotional copy:

Iris Dancy’s free-spirited mum has left for Tunisia, her dad’s rarely sober and her brother’s determined to fight anyone with a pair of fists.

When a family of travelers move into the overgrown paddock overnight, her dad looks set to finally lose it. Gypsies are parasites he says, but Iris is intrigued. As her dad plans to evict the traveling family, Iris makes friends with their teenage son. Trick Deran is a bare-knuckle boxer who says he’s done with fighting, but is he telling the truth?

When tools go missing from the shed, the travelers are the first suspects. Iris’s brother, Sam, warns her to stay away from Trick; he’s dangerous, but Iris can no longer blindly follow her brother’s advice. He’s got secrets of his own, and she’s not sure he can be trusted himself.

Infinite Sky is a family story about betrayal and loyalty, and love.

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?

I am very surprised to be debuting in 2013, though it has taken a fair while to get here. I started writing seriously after graduating in Cornwall. I was 21 and it was 2004. A friend encouraged me to submit something to the creative writing pages of a local magazine she edited, and when it was selected to be published, I immediately wanted to repeat the process. I was addicted to seeing my name in print.

 For the next few years, I wrote short stories and poems and submitted them to lots and lots of different places, obsessively checking my emails to see if I had any rejections (always lots) or acceptances (increasingly some). This led to reading at magazine launches, and meeting other writers, and beginning to share work and get feedback.

C.J. is a “little obsessed” with table tennis.

I didn’t exactly keep the faith at this time, but I did keep writing. Partly because it was a compulsion, partly because it was an outlet for my creativity which wasn’t used at all in my work (waitressing/carework), and partly because I was desperate to change my situation. My then-boyfriend took himself seriously as an artist, and some of that rubbed off on me too. Most of my friends were in a similar position, working jobs they didn’t love to earn money to survive until they found their feet in sculpture or photography or illustration. We were all in it together.

This went on for a few years until I was 26. I had been toying for a while with the idea of doing an MA in Creative Writing, but the application process put me off, and I wasn’t sure I was good enough to get in.

Finally, after seeing a good friend of mine successfully place at the University of East Anglia (sort of like the UK’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop programme) I decided to apply. I didn’t apply anywhere else for some reason. Luckily, I got in. A few months later, I packed up all my stuff, and moved away from my beloved Cornwall to Norwich.

During this year, I learned so much about writing. At the same time as I had applied to UEA I had applied for the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme – a year’s mentoring with a successful writer – and a few months into the course, I found out I had been successful. I had even more support for my writing! For the first time ever, I could prioritise it over everything else. I was surrounded by people who were focused on getting better. Every week there were workshops and chats and readings. Life revolved around writing, and it was wonderful. Not surprisingly, during this time, my writing developed enormously.

Towards the end of the MA, we had meetings with agents and publishers, and an anthology of our work was sent out to industry professionals. We had a showcase of our work in London and Norwich. The combination of these three things led to me signing with my dream agent, Catherine Clarke, and a year after finishing the course, my book sold to Simon & Schuster, U.K. and Arena, Germany, at auction.

I knew that the UEA course could work this way for students, but I didn’t expect to be one of them. Because of the speed at which things happened in the last couple of years, after very little happening at all for the first seven, I still find it surprising.

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?

With Molly.

To some extent, Iris’s voice did seem to come almost by magic, and I think this was due to my surrounding myself with the world of the novel. Because Infinite Sky is set in the house where my dad still lives, I could literally do this. I wandered the fields and ran around the yard and sat by the brook, and it brought back so many memories of my teen years. I realised how much a part of me that landscape is, and how much I love it, and I think that comes through in Iris’s voice.

Another thing that made it seem fairly easy, was the fact that Iris is a sort of idealised version of me at thirteen. I know her very well!

Still, it took a long time to get her voice just right, and I did do some exercises. Mostly, I freewrote. I would try to empty my head, and get into an almost trance-like state in which I was barely critical, and then write whatever struck me about the novel. I would write about what Iris thought of her mum leaving, how she felt about her older brother, what she thought of Silverweed Farm falling into disrepair.

As for listening to young people, I am always trying! They have such excellent conversations! However, because of the classic feel I was aiming for with Infinite Sky, I didn’t use any contemporary slang or youth talk, so all my earwigging was just for fun.

So, yes, a combination of freeing my inner teen, freewriting and visualisation worked really well for me when writing my first novel.

New Voice: Miriam Forster on City of a Thousand Dolls

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Miriam Forster is the first-time author of City of a Thousand Dolls (HarperTeen, 2013)(Pinterest inspiration board). From the promotional copy:

Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. 

Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. 

Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life.

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

Nisha came about after I had the original idea for City of a Thousand Dolls. I had imagined this place where girls would be trained in all kinds of different things, where everyone had a place and a purpose. Then I asked myself what would happen if you had someone in this place who didn’t have much of a purpose or place at all. What kind of person would they become?

Originally Nisha was much too passive. She reacted a lot instead of taking initiative. I had to make her more proactive without losing the emotional vulnerability and honest human frailty that I felt was so key to her character. It was a hard balance for me to find, but it was important to me that she not be “strong” in the traditional female fantasy heroine way. I wanted her to make mistakes and stumble around and need help sometimes because we all do.

There is immense strength in not giving up, there is strength in fixing your mistakes and accepting your past. And that strength isn’t related to whether or not you can kick ass.

With Kona AKA “Sneaky Weasel Cat”

Also, sometimes character development can sneak up on you. The original ending was riddled with problems and I had to rewrite it quite a bit, but one thing that it had was a scene where Nisha does the classic, detective-analyzes-the-clues bit, and figures out the killer. But in the rewritten ending, she ends up more stumbling into the solution than anything else. I didn’t do that on purpose, in fact I didn’t even realize I’d done it until people started commenting on it. But I think it fits with who Nisha is in the book. She doesn’t fix things by being smarter or better than anyone else. She fixes them by refusing to give up until she does.

And then there are the cats. My favorite comment about the book so far is that it can turn anyone into a cat person. I’ve heard that quite a bit, and it makes me happy.

Cats are in my blood. I grew up with them, there were always at least two or three around when I was a kid. As much as I like dogs, there’s something about cats that just appeals to me. I like their independence, and how they ask for what they want. How they can go from cuddly and affectionate to ferocious hunters in the blink of an eye. They seemed like the perfect companions for Nisha, who is also independent and determined, and far fiercer than she realizes.

(As for the antagonist, I can’t tell you anything. It’s a secret.)

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

A bit of both. Originally I’d envisioned the book as being about expectations and how they shape people, but in the course of writing the first draft, I realized it was much more about different kinds of love and how they react when faced with human frailty. That part never really changed during rewrites.

Miriam’s work station

But the secondary themes and the real world things, those sneaked up on me.

(Other authors have muses that come and whisper to them. My muse likes to hide behind doors and jump out at me and yell “boo!”.)

The most obvious one was the idea that girls in this society were considered less valuable than boys. And that happened because I had to answer the question “Why is there a city dedicated to training orphaned and abandoned girls?”

I wish I could say that answer was hard to find, or that I had to think a lot about how to make it believable. But I didn’t.

I’d already figured out that the Bhinian Empire had been isolated by a magic catastrophe, so it made sense that there would be a restriction on the number of children people could have. And sadly, there is ample evidence in the world today that when you have to choose between having boys and having girls, girls lose out. The effects of China’s one-child policy is the most obvious example, but there are others, and I found them in my path wherever I turned.

The Bhinian Empire is a South Asian-inspired world. Specifically, I took a lot of cultural cues from the ancient Indus River valley civilization and from pre-colonization India. And unfortunately, the value of girls in India is falling. In 2006, my husband went to India and visited several orphanages. He was surprised by the overwhelming number of girls there, and was told that many of them were not orphans, but simply abandoned by parents who could not afford their dowries.

In 2011, USA today ran an article about over two hundred girls who changed their names. These girls had all been named some variation of “unwanted” by family members who’d been hoping for a boy. The New York Times ran an article in October about gender politics in India, and said that even though literacy and education for girls is getting better, the ratio of girls to boys continues to fall.

Miriam’s favorite food: soup!

So it was all too believable that in a world with a two-child limit, there would be a city dedicated to orphaned and abandoned girls. There are some problematic things about the City of a Thousand Dolls that are revealed in the book, but one constant is that most of the people who work there really believe that they’re doing what they have to in order to protect the girls in their care. Because no one else will.

Honestly, my favorite secondary characters are the girls in the City. I love how they’re all different and that’s okay. They have all kinds of skills and talents. Some of them love to learn and some of them love to dance. Some of them are shy and some of them are confident. Some of them match the standards of physically beauty in the society and some of them don’t, but that’s okay.

All of them are different, and all of them are beautiful.

I didn’t start out to write a book about a bunch of female characters who are full of secrets and brokenness and mistakes but still manage to be strong in different ways. But that was kind of what I ended up with. And I’m okay with that.

“Enough books! Pet me!”

New Voice: Erica Lorraine Scheidt on Uses for Boys

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Erica Lorraine Scheidt
is the first-time author of Uses for Boys (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)(blog; see also). From the promotional copy:

Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. 

From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. 

Anna’s new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can’t know.

Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. 

Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt is a story of breaking down and growing up.

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

Pam Houston. Hands down. She’s the most generous reader I’ve ever known. Listening to her read from an essay or a story or a novel she admires is powerful. It makes you lean in and listen. It’s in how she reads a sentence. The attention she brings to it. Absolutely.

Pam Houston taught me how to read.

I spent two years in the graduate writing program she runs at University of California at Davis and I think it was no one thing, no particular workshop or piece of writing. It was watching her work on Contents May Have Shifted (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012) and teach and make her life and be an artist in the world that had such a profound impact on me.

And even now, four or five years later, she says things that speak directly to my own struggles. She recently posted this:

I just sent this to one of my favorite writing students who has been wrestling hard with a novel this summer and is getting a little beat up: “You are in the vertiginous, vomit-inducing forest of not knowing. It is supposed to suck in there. But you already know that. You also know it is the good news.” I realized I was writing to myself, as well as him, as I begin the terrifying next project.

And I think about that all the time. I think about it every time I get to the vertiginous, vomit-inducing forest of not knowing. But I know it’s the good news. That’s what I learned from Pam.

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

I’m not a teacher but a teaching artist and I feel exceptionally
fortunate to work with young writers. The six years or so that I spent
volunteering at 826 Valencia have
changed what I believe is possible—both in terms of writing and in
creating community. Every day a young writer shares his or her writing
for the first time and that moment changes everything. 

Imagine! Things start tumbling out after that. You are not alone! You made a beautiful thing! You put language together in surprising and truthful ways!

I’m awed by it every time.

And then, young writers surprise themselves. They’ll fight against rewriting, they’ll think it’s impossible to come up with anything else, but once they do, they’re amazed by what they can create.

What comes from working on a piece of writing is always so much more than either of us could have foreseen.

I get a lot out of preparing for a workshop. It pushes me to read closer and think about why a story works. What is it about the first sentence? What promise is made about the story? Why did the writer end it there? What can we learn from this?

And selfishly, an hour with a group of teens—who unlike adults often write to write, not to get published—is the perfect antidote for my myriad writer’s insecurities and worries and my little library of hurts. I always come out of a workshop like, hell yeah, let’s go write a sentence!

Downtown High School Students from 826 Valencia

Cynsational Notes

Erica has a studio at Headlands Center for the Arts.

New Voice: Lenore Appelhans/Jennewein on Level 2 & Chick-o-Saurus Rex

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lenore Jennewein is the author of Chick-o-Saurus Rex, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Simon & Schuster, 2013). From the promotional copy: 

The humorous story of a little chick who proves his mettle to the farm’s big bullies when he discovers he has a very mighty lineage. 

Lenore Appelhans is the author of Level 2 (Simon & Schuster, 2013)(teacher’s guide). From the promotional copy:

In Level 2, the liminal place between our world (Level 1) and heaven, seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward spends her days in her pod reliving her
favorite memories – until she gets broken out by
Julian, a boy she knew when she was still alive. 

There’s about to be an
uprising in Level Two, and Julian wants to recruit her to the cause. 

unsure whether she can trust Julian, and still in love
with her boyfriend Neil on Earth, she finds herself torn between two
loves—and two worlds.

In case you haven’t guessed, Lenore and Lenore are the same person.

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?

Not only am I debuting a novel (Level 2) in January, I am also debuting a picture book Chick-o-Saurus Rex (under the name Lenore Jennewein) with my illustrator-husband Daniel Jennewein.

The novel has somewhat of a charmed history, but the picture book was a long time in coming.

Daniel and I started working on our first picture all the way back in 2004. It was our learning book, and we tinkered with it for years (on weekends since we both had demanding full-time jobs) before we discovered SCBWI.

It was through SCBWI that I discovered I could submit this picture book for a professional manuscript critique. The critique stung because it showed us that we needed to do another complete overhaul on it before we could submit it to editors.

Eventually, we realized that as much as we loved this first book, we had to move on. Some books are never meant to be published, and this was one of them. We began developing a second project, one that got some good feedback from art directors at several publishers, but unfortunately never sold.

It was the SCBWI Bologna conference that put things in motion for us. Daniel’s artwork caught the eye of HarperCollins Art Director Martha Rago which eventually led to his first book contract for Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? written by Audrey Vernick (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2010).

As for me, the conference got me interested in YA and I started blogging about books at Presenting Lenore. For the next few years, I read hundreds of YA novels – which gave me a sense for what works and what doesn’t. I also met many authors, several of whom became like mentors to me, and were very encouraging when I started writing Level 2.

The next pivotal event was the SCBWI New York conference 2011. I participated in the round table event, which led to an agent offering rep for the picture book Daniel and I were collaborating on (our third project together).

We ended up signing with a different agent, one who knew I was also working on a novel. He read it, loved it and sold it by the end of March. Meanwhile, Daniel and I had developed our fourth picture book and he sold that too.

So here I am with two debut books coming out in 2013 and I couldn’t be more thrilled, surprised and grateful.

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

Teacher’s guide to Level 2

My novel, Level 2, is set in the afterlife, so that automatically classifies it as paranormal, though I never really thought of it that way. It’s a bit of a mash-up actually, because about one-third takes place in this sort of sci-fi afterlife and the other two-thirds take place within the main character’s memories – her contemporary life back on earth.

I do tend to prefer novels with paranormal elements rather than those with full-blown paranormal universes. I enjoy that twist on the familiar – the examination of a world similar to ours except for “the thing that (subtlety or not) changes everything”.

I think that’s why I’m so drawn to high-concept dystopian novels.

What would our society look like if love were outlawed? (Delirium by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2011)).

What would be important to us if we knew we’d die by 20 years old? (Wither by Lauren DeStefano (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2011)).

How would our relationships change if only teen girls could get pregnant? (Bumped by Megan McCafferty (Balzer + Bray, 20110).

The afterlife world of Level 2 was inspired by my love of dystopian literature (I’ve dedicated six entire months on my blog to dystopian novels). I’d been playing with an idea for awhile that incorporated memories as currency in the afterlife, but I was stumped as to how to implement it.

My a-ha moment was the thought: “What would a dystopian afterlife look like?”, and everything developed from there.

Paying It Forward

By 2012 debut author Lynne Kelly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathi Appelt, Franny Billingsley, Kimberly Willis Holt, Jane Kurtz, Dian Curtis Regan

To you, these names should represent some of the brightest, most respected talents in youth literature.

To me, they—among others—signify those established authors who made an effort to reach out to me as a young, beginning writer. They offered encouragement or advice or comfort or friendship—or all of the above.

And yes, I’m still starstruck by them all.

I’ve never been an active member of another arts community, so I don’t know whether this is unusual or the status quo. But I do know it had a powerful impact on my art, career and life for the better.

I can never repay them for their gifts, but I do what I can to pay it forward.
And I hope I’d do that even if there were no pending debt. To those of you who, like me, have been traveling this path for a while, I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Here are 10 ways to nurture new voices:

1) Say hello and offer encouragement at your local SCBWI, RWA or other writer organization meetings.

2) Speak to and teach beginners about writing via private and/or public workshops and meetings.

3) Meet with newcomers, one-on-one, for a cup of iced tea and to answer their questions.

By 2012 debut author Gwenda Bond

4) Send an occasional encouraging card or email.

5) Celebrate when someone signs with an agent or lands his/her first contract. Send cards, flowers, share their announcement on facebook – whatever’s appropriate to the relationship.

6) Upon request, be willing to read in-production manuscripts and, if they’re a fit, offer blurbs.

7) Attend debut and new voice author launch parties and other promotional events.

8) Raise awareness of debut books via your blog, social networks, and perhaps even speaking engagements. (I often include cover art from various first-timers’ new releases in my event presentations.)

9) Purchase and distribute debut books to your own book-loving contacts with a personal notes of recommendation.

10) Offer a sympathetic ear if expectations are dashed or must simply be readjusted from time to time.

The debut authors of 2011 and 2012 are still, in many ways, finding their feet. They new voices of 2013 are perched on the horizon. Let’s think more about how we can show all of them some love.

What suggestions would you like to add?