New Voice: Joshua David Bellin on Survival Colony 9

Curriculum Guide & Excerpt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Joshua David Bellin is the first time author of Survival Colony 9 (McElderry, 2014). From the promotional copy:

In a future world of dust and ruin, fourteen-year-old Querry Genn struggles to recover the lost memory that might save the human race. 

Querry is a member of Survival Colony Nine, one of the small, roving groups of people who outlived the wars and environmental catastrophes that destroyed the old world. 

The commander of Survival Colony Nine is his father, Laman Genn, who runs the camp with an iron will. He has to–because heat, dust, and starvation aren’t the only threats in this ruined world.

There are also the Skaldi.

Monsters with the ability to infect and mimic human hosts, the Skaldi appeared on the planet shortly after the wars of destruction. No one knows where they came from or what they are. But if they’re not stopped, it might mean the end of humanity.

Six months ago, Querry had an encounter with the Skaldi–and now he can’t remember anything that happened before then. If he can recall his past, he might be able to find the key to defeat the Skaldi.

If he can’t, he’s their next victim.

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

Joshua’s blog is YA Guy.

That’s a great question, because my protagonist spends the entire novel trying to discover and get to know himself!

Querry Genn, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Survival Colony 9, suffers from traumatic memory loss brought on by an accident six months before the action of the book begins. He can’t remember the accident, and he can’t remember anything that happened before it.

This condition presented me with the opportunity to explore Querry’s past as he himself discovers it—to follow along with him as he slowly, painfully fits the pieces together.

When I was drafting, I produced a number of possible pasts for Querry, testing them out until I found the one I liked the most.

Of those that didn’t make the cut, I discarded the majority during the revision process—but others I retained as false leads that Querry himself ultimately discovers to be untrue. So readers are in some ways in Querry’s position, learning along with him what’s real and what isn’t—but just like him, they may jump to conclusions that aren’t borne out by later revelations.

Given my narrator’s amnesia, I was able to pursue a somewhat similar process with the other characters. Querry doesn’t remember anyone else either, so he has to reconstruct who they are and how they fit into his life. So with almost all of the secondary characters—Querry’s father, Laman Genn; Korah, the teenage girl he has a crush on; Yov, the teenage boy who torments him due to his disability—I had the opportunity to develop them in two not always congruent ways: who they actually are, and who Querry thinks they are. My hope is that readers will be drawn into the mystery of not always knowing who or what they can trust.

And that leads me to my antagonists, creatures I call the Skaldi. These monsters have the ability to consume and mimic human prey—which means you can’t be sure who’s human and who’s Skaldi in disguise. Taking all these factors together, I think readers will find the characters in Survival Colony 9 convincingly complex, mysterious, and full of surprises!

Josh Bellin and Big Green, White Cloud MI, age 11

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

I knew from the start that Survival Colony 9 was going to speak to environmental issues. The world of the novel is a hostile desert, and that setting was one of the first things I envisioned.

When I started writing, the category of “cli-fi”—fiction having to do with climate change—hadn’t yet been coined, but it turns out that’s exactly what I was writing!

I will say, however, that it took a number of drafts before I was satisfied with how my novel spoke to contemporary events/issues. In early drafts, the environmental subtext was much more explicit: I devoted a whole chapter to one character explaining to Querry the history of their world, which meant, essentially, a huge truckload of exposition disguised as dialogue. It was too much, not only in terms of length but in the tone, which seemed far too didactic.

So I scaled way back, letting the scene speak for itself. It’s a desert world. Food and water are scarce. Violent, unpredictable storms pound the landscape.

If that image doesn’t speak to readers, no amount of exposition will.

I think this is an important point for science fiction writers, because science fiction is so topical it’s easy for it to become preachy.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which some people consider one of the earliest sci-fi novels, raised all kinds of fascinating questions about the nature of life and the power of science—but it didn’t preach to its readers, didn’t tell them what to believe.

Yet when a much older and sadder Shelley revised her novel in 1831, she turned it into a long, boring sermon on the excesses of scientific experimentation. That’s why I never teach the 1831 edition, even though it’s customary to consider the most recent edition the most representative of the author’s vision.

I think Shelley violated her own best instincts as a fiction writer in 1831, and she produced a much inferior novel as a result.

I’m proud of the fact that I’m an environmentalist. I love the natural world, and I work hard—both as a father and as an activist—to instill that love in others.

But as a fiction writer, I’m not going to hit readers over the head with my beliefs. The role of fiction is to stimulate the imagination, not to proselytize or recruit. Having presented the best imaginary world I can, it’s up to readers to do with that world what they will.

New Voice: Rachel M. Wilson on Don’t Touch

Book Club Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rachel M. Wilson is the first-time author of Don’t Touch (HarperTeen, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A powerful story of a girl who is afraid to touch another person’s skin, until the boy auditioning for Hamlet opposite her Ophelia gives her a reason to overcome her fears.

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Touch another person’s skin, and Dad’s gone for good.

Caddie can’t stop thinking that if she keeps from touching another person’s skin, her parents might get back together… which is why she wears full-length gloves to school and covers every inch of her skin.

It seems harmless at first, but Caddie’s obsession soon threatens her ambitions as an actress. She desperately wants to play Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet. But that would mean touching Peter, who’s auditioning for the title role—and kissing him. Part of Caddie would love nothing more than to kiss Peter—but the other part isn’t sure she’s brave enough to let herself fall.

Perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson, this debut novel from Rachel M. Wilson is a moving story of a talented girl who’s fighting an increasingly severe anxiety disorder, and the friends and family who stand by her.

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?

Because of how things work at Harper Collins, there were many “calls” with several stages of increasing excitement: They’re interested! It’s going to an editorial meeting! It made it through editorial! It’s going to acquisitions!

All these different people have to sign off on the book, and on the days of those various meetings, it was surreal going to work knowing that in New York, people I’d never met were making decisions about my book.

We had other interest as well, so I had the opportunity to speak with the prospective editors.

“The call” I remember is the one in which I heard the final offers and needed to make a decision by end of day.

At the time, I was coordinating an after-school program. The kids would be arriving any minute, but I ducked into a classroom to hash out the pros and cons with my agent, Sara Crowe. I also called my friend Varian Johnson for moral support.

I’m terrible with big decisions—I always mourn the loss of the path not taken even when I’m confident I’ve made a good choice—and I needed to hear voices I trusted supporting my decision. I couldn’t really go wrong, but at the same time it felt like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where any path might lead to a swamp monster devouring my book deal.

After I made my choice official, I had to continue on with work and have a normal afternoon, and none of it felt real.

It finally hit me when a friend said she’d seen the announcement in Publishers Marketplace. I saw her message in a parking lot, started to drive away, and then had to pull over and sob.

It was the weekend of AWP in Chicago, so I walked around the conference all weekend with this secret knowledge, wanting to tell everyone.

Luckily, I had plenty of writerly friends in town to share the good news. A few of us went to The Magic Parlour at the Palmer House Hilton, and I went to the VCFA meetup at AWP and won a VCFA teddy bear in the raffle, which was the nicest coincidence since he always reminds me of how unstoppable I felt that whole weekend.

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 have I approached it? Like a mascot on ice skates, which is to say with much enthusiasm, limited foresight, and little regard for my personal well-being. It seriously feels like a full-time job, and it can become one if you let it.

Organization is key. A production manager friend of mine recently helped me overhaul my task management and email systems. For the first time in my life, I have an empty inbox, and I’ve been using Trello to track to-dos. I try to say “yes” to every opportunity, so anytime I’m offered an interview or guest blog, I add it to Trello and set a deadline so I won’t fail to follow through.

Remy Frankenstein

My main support system and fount of ideas has been the OneFour Kidlit debut author group. On our forum, we ask each other questions like, “What’s the deal with book plates?” “Where does one get book plates?” “What does one do with book plates?” “Do I seriously need book plates?” etc., etc.

For the record, I have not ordered bookplates.

I may regret that.

That’s the thing about promotion—there’s no end to what you could do, little agreement on what you should do, and definite limits on what you can do. This way lies madness.

Knowing myself, I’m more likely to follow through with something I’ll enjoy on multiple levels. And since there is limited time and money for all of this, I might as well spend it on the fun parts.

For example, I proposed a giveaway contest to Fashion by the Book. I enjoy that blog, I want to get more involved with Tumblr, and the contest is something I’d want to do—I like making outfits with Polyvore. After seeing several of my fellow debut authors running giveaways of annotated ARCs and thinking that would be fun, I decided to make my own.

I’m also making a book trailer. That might not be fun for every author, but as a theater person in a major city, I’m able to wrangle many helpful friends, including an amazing director and casting director, Matt Miller, whose webseries, “Teachers,” was recently picked up for a pilot with TV Land.

Beyond getting organized and having fun, my advice is to brainstorm all the possibilities—even the ones that seem out of reach, make wish lists, prioritize, be generous in helping out other authors, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to bloggers and suggest promotional posts or giveaways; ask your friends and your publisher for support. As long as you’re being kind and respectful of people’s time, the worst they can say is “no,” and I’ve found that “yeses” are far more common.

train tracks in Irondale, AL, where the book is set

Cynsational Screening Room

New Voice: Jennifer Mathieu on The Truth About Alice

By Emma Kate Tsai 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jennifer Mathieu is the first-time author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook, 2014). From the promotional copy: 

Everyone knows Alice slept with two guys at one party. When Healy High star quarterback, Brandon Fitzsimmons, dies in a car crash, it was because he was sexting with Alice. Ask anybody.

Rumor has it Alice Franklin is a slut. It’s written all over the “slut stall” in the girls’ bathroom: “Alice had sex in exchange for math test answers” and “Alice got an abortion last semester.” 

After Brandon dies, the rumors start to spiral out of control. 

In this remarkable debut novel, four Healy High students tell all they “know” about Alice–and in doing so reveal their own secrets and motivations, painting a raw look at the realities of teen life. 

But exactly what is the truth about Alice? In the end there’s only one person to ask: Alice herself.

How did you get into writing?

I was a journalism major initially. Actually, I have no formal writing training in terms of an MFA or even an English degree, but I’ve been a writer my entire life, ever since I can remember—working on my school paper and entering little writing competitions in school.

By RDSmith4

Sometimes I think I probably should have been an English major. But I always thought in my mind: “What does an English major do?” “What kind of job would an English major have?”

It seems silly now, but in the early nineties when newspapers weren’t dying yet, I could write and still make a living, so that’s why I majored in journalism.

I went to Northwestern University and got my B.S., and I did work as a newspaper reporter for several years for the Houston Press. And I actually dabbled in personal essay. I had a few pieces published here and there and I even tried to pitch a book of essays but didn’t really get very far. Then, in 2005, I decided to become a teacher. I got certified by HISD and ended up getting a master’s in education.

How did you decide to write young adult literature?

After I started teaching middle school English, I realized that there was this new world of young adult literature. As a kid I’d read everything I could get my hands on, constantly: Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and all the eighties teen classics, but I didn’t realize there was this sort of renaissance in young adult literature that was happening.

And of course I taught middle school, so my students wanted to know what was good. I went to the International Reading Association, a big conference for English teachers who focus on reading, and they had this huge room where publishers gave away ARCs and I was like a kid in a candy store.

I shipped home a box of these young adult novels and I started reading them, and I just thought to myself, that young adult literature had become so authentic. It was telling real stories about real kids, and different kinds of kids. Something told me I might be able to do this.

How did you get your first agent?

I ended up writing a manuscript that I took to completion, and after that I went to a teen book conference in Humble where I met a woman named Sonia Sones, who writes YA books in verse: What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, which is just one of my all-time favorite titles.

I hired her to critique my first young adult manuscript. I asked her, “Please just tell me if you think that if I have like any chance. I trust you. What do you think?”

She said, “You have a voice, you should do this. It’s a tough market, it’s a difficult market, but I think you have a chance.”

I didn’t know what a query letter was, I didn’t how people got agents, that was all foreign to me, but thank God for the internet, and I did a Google search.

I remember going to Barnes and Noble and getting a book of literary agents and trying to figure out how this all worked, and that’s how I found Nathan Bransford, who eventually became my first agent. On my bedroom wall, I have my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree and my letter from Nathan Bransford offering me representation. He never sold the first two books I wrote, but they got me an agent.

How did you get the idea for The Truth About Alice?

I ended up changing agents, and even though my new agent loved the two books I’d written, it was Alice that she sold. When I signed on with her, it was just an idea. But I wrote it, she sent me notes, I revised it.

When I was in high school, I read “Seventeen” magazine. It was 1992, and there was this article about this girl who went to school in Minnesota and she’d been the subject of these horrible, disgusting, sexual things written about her on a bathroom stall. She ended up suing the school under Title IX because the school didn’t clean the stall. Her parents came and tried to help her clean on a weekend and I remember thinking about how humiliated she must have felt. To have her parents have to see that.

That stayed with me and ended up being the seed that started the book. God, what a nightmare for that girl. And I’ve always loved stories that are told from multiple points of view like The Spoon River Anthology.

I remember thinking this might be the one that sells. I was right. It eventually went to auction and four houses bid on it at the same time. I ended up choosing Roaring Brook Press because they showed interest first, they had changes to make that made sense me, and they made a little YouTube video that showed how enthusiastic they were.

What was different about The Truth About Alice?

It was so much fun to write. The characters felt so alive to me in my head. I would see students at my high school where I teach and think that’s Kurt, or that’s Kelsey. They just seemed like real people to me.

Also, the story had some scandal in it, some bite to it, which I think always helps sell a book.

It’s about a girl who allegedly sleeps with two boys at a party, and all these rumors develop, and it’s set in a small Texas town. It was pitched as “Friday Night Lights” meets “Easy A.”

Why do you think you can write young adult literature?

I remember high school really, really well. I personally did not like high school very much. I don’t know if that’s why I ended up teaching it and writing about it. But I just remember what it was like to be a teenager, and how painful it was in a lot of ways for me.

One of my eleventh graders read an ARC of it and she came up to me and said that it was the most realistic teenager voice she’d ever read. I think I get teenagers. I think that’s why people seem to like the voice, especially of Alice. It’s like the gloves are off.

Do you have any tips for writing for teenagers?

One thing I do and I think I do well is I try not to use slang or dated language. I don’t reference Facebook or any of that. Because, really, in this book they write graffiti about a girl ion a stall. That’s in a sense somewhat 1950s, but it hasn’t turned off the teenagers I know that have read it because there’s something timeless about being a teenager and feeling ostracized. I think focusing on those timeless elements of being young are how you stay authentic, as opposed to trying to sound young in the voice or the dialogue. You don’t want to be that older person that’s trying to sound young.

What teenagers are is brutally honest, not always out loud, just in that intensity in everything that they think and feel. I try to tap into that.

Everything is such a big deal, everything is capitalized when you’re a teenager. This one character in this book, her name is Kelsey, is very concerned about what other people think of her and she eventually drops Alice as a friend out of fear of being ostracized along with her.

There’s this moment where she says,

“You know how like when you’re learning about Nazi Germany and how everyone is always I wouldn’t have been a Nazi. Well, I would have been a Nazi. I would have been a passive sort of a Nazi, but I still would have been a Nazi. Because everyone says they would have saved Anne Frank, but clearly not that many people did.” 

She has that awareness. Teenagers are not dumb and they see hypocrisy very clearly. Even when they themselves are doing it, when they’re the ones being hypocrites.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

As I reflect back, I don’t know if I’m surprised to debut in 2014 or just flat out grateful.

More on Jennifer Mathieu

I received the call from my agent that my book had sold – actually, that it was going to auction! – while on a beach vacation with my family. This may sound a bit fantastical, but shortly before the vacation, I’d started “imagining” what it would be like to receive such news while at the beach.

I actually created a vision in my mind of answering the phone from my agent and hearing her say, “Alice sold.”

I’m actually a really rational, logical person (for a writer, anyway!), and I had no logic to base this thinking on – the book went out at the end of the spring and we hadn’t heard anything yet.

Plus, “The Truth About Alice” was my third manuscript to go on submission – my first two had come very, very close but had never sold. But something in me knew on some weird gut level that this one was going to be different.

I even remember thinking, “Third time is a charm.” But nothing my agent or anyone else said or did gave me any actual facts to think it was going to sell at this time. It was just a feeling. And it came true just as I’d pictured it!

Jennifer & Kate Sowa, Blue Willow Bookshop

I’ve been a writer since childhood, but I started writing young adult fiction in 2007 or so, shortly after I became a teacher. It was a two-year process to write my first novel and find an agent.

Then, as I mentioned, my novel didn’t sell – although I got a lot of wonderful positive feedback. I wrote another book. That one didn’t sell either.

Again, more positive feedback that always ended in, “but…”

Then my original agent left agenting, and I was moved to someone else in the same agency who is still my agent today (the wonderful Sarah LaPolla). I started thinking about trying to write a third book – I had this idea for The Truth About Alice swimming around in my mind.

I remember having long talks with my husband about whether or not I should continue, and it always came down to this: I still loved writing.

I remember saying to him, “The day I no longer love writing, I’ll give up trying to sell a book.”

And I still loved it! Of course I did. I’d been doing it since I was young. So I kept doing it.

 I wrote The Truth About Alice over the period of about two years and then it sold.

Lucha tries to stop Jennifer from packing.

I’ve said more than once that I’m very glad this book came out when it did. I’m 37, and I have an established career as a teacher, a profession I really love.

I have a wonderful husband and son and a rich family life and lots of good friends. I feel like I’m in a place to truly appreciate this success and remain humbled by it.

not that I don’t consider myself ambitious or that I don’t want to continue to do my best as a writer. I do.

 But it took seven years to get from the time I started writing young adult fiction to the time I held the copy of my first published book in my hand.

The wait was worth it and I think the wait helps me keep it all in perspective. This is all a dream come true, and I’m grateful for it. This is all icing on a really delicious cake.

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?

Well, I can’t get too precious or navel-gazing about my writing. I can’t wait for the moment to strike.

In addition to teaching full-time, I also have a husband and young preschooler. When I’m on deadline, I write every day. I work, pick up my son, spend time with him and then with my husband when he gets home, and after my son is asleep my husband and I take a few minutes to just talk about our days. This is very helpful and rejuvenating.

Then it’s off to the dining room table to write! Again, because I have one to two hours a day at most to really work on my writing, I just have to do it. Some nights I write junk, but that’s okay. I still wrote something.

senior year

I actually write more now than I did before I was a mother. Limited time helps me prioritize what I really want to do, and I really want to write!

When I’m not on deadline, I might not write each day, but I’m always doing something related to my writing career each day – even if it’s just reading a book on my To Read List or connecting with other authors on social media and keeping up with the news. (Although I try not to get too obsessed with all that. I’m a big believer in not getting wrapped up in industry trends or gossip.)

My advice to others who want to write but who also have full-time jobs is to try and create a routine. Something else that helps me is establishing little writing “goals” like writing 500 words on a particular day (or 1,000 words if I have more time).

However, I’m a big believer in finding what works for you. Some people don’t do well with the pressure of a number of words. Some would rather say, “I’ll write for 30 minutes,” or “I’ll write on Tuesdays and Fridays.” It’s almost like exercise – even if you don’t have a ton of free time due to other work commitments, creating little mini goals like that can really keep you motivated.

Another piece of advice is to find a friend or friends with whom you can share your work – maybe a critique partner or group. I’m very fortunate because I have a dear friend who is also a teacher and a young adult lit fan. She doesn’t write herself, but she loves to talk with me about my writing and projects, and she is a terrific sounding board. She has been reading my work since I started all those years ago.

Finding someone you can talk to about your projects can really motivate you and inspire you to keep going! I often feel very energized when talking to my friend about my projects, and after we talk I’m ready to jump back on the keyboard!

New Voice: M.K. Hutchins on Drift

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

M.K. Hutchins is the first-time author of Drift (Tu Books, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Tenjat lives on the shores of Hell, an ocean filled with ravenous naga monsters. His island, a massive Turtle, is slowed by the people living on its back. Only those poor enough to need children to support themselves in old age condescend to the shame of marriage. 

Tenjat is poor as poor gets, but he has a plan. Can Tenjat discover his sister’s secrets in time? Will the possibility of love derail all his plans for a richer, marriage-free life? 

Long-held secrets will at last be revealed in this breathtaking debut from M. K. Hutchins.

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?

Drift had a long revision process. I started writing it back around 2005, while attending my first semesters of college.

Originally it was a novella, but it stank at that length. Everything felt rushed and undeveloped. I tossed it in a drawer.

In 2008, I extended a different novella into a novel. I thought back to Drift, which, in truth, was more like notes about a story than a story itself. I expanded it, too. But it still smelled funny.

So I kept writing other books, occasionally looking back. Some things that had given me a headache were easy to fix after all that extra experience. Other problems stubbornly remained. I fixed what I could, got more critiques, and revised again.

Come 2011, I knew the book was the best my skills could currently make it. I’d heard Stacy Whitman speak at a conference, thought she might be a good match for the book, and sent it straight to her. She sent me back a revision letter.

Follow @MKHutchins on Twitter

I’ve heard all the horror stories about revision letters, but for me, it was like Christmas. I could finally see those elusive weak spots in the manuscript.

Armed with that knowledge, I enthusiastically brainstormed solutions to the point that I was getting up every hour in the middle of the night to jot down notes (my husband did not sleep well).

During the rounds of revision, Stacy said something that surprised me: she called my book ambitious.

When I blinked at her, she continued, talking about the worldbuilding.

It never occurred to me that it took so long to get this book right, not because I was just slow and determined to succeed via mule-like stubbornness alone, but because I was trying to throw the reader into a different secondary world fantasy while telling a story and making it all feel effortless on the reader’s part.

I had two big take-aways from all of this.

First, that I need lots readers and critiquers. I need people to tell me when my worldbuilding is opaque, when it is clumsy, and when I’d managed the details just right so it flowed off the page.

I am not the kind of writer that can write well in a vacuum, isolated from feedback.

I wish I’d figured that out a lot sooner. For me, a good critique helps me see the flaws in a manuscript better than rereading it a half-dozen times.

Secondly, the people that you work with in this industry matters. There are lots of talented editors, but Stacy also understood what I wanted to do with this book. I didn’t dread my revision letters. All the things she pointed out or suggested made my book cleaner and stronger — more the story that I’d been trying to tell all along.

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

In high school, I noticed that a lot of my childhood favorites didn’t study writing — they were experts in some other area. Thanks to Tolkien, I was already fascinated by anthropology and linguistics.

Yes, I was the nerdy kind of teen that checked out Anthro 101 textbooks from the local library and devoured Reading the Maya Glyphs by Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone (Thames & Hudson, 2001) for fun. After I graduated high school, I went to college and studied archaeology.

Drift came from day-dreaming-thinking during my classes. Maya cosmology, especially the idea of the world being on the back of a turtle surrounded by a watery hell, struck me. That image mingled with ideas of burial practices and economic pressures. Soon, I had a world that both physically and culturally felt round and real to me.

I often hear people say that fantasy doesn’t require research. I feel the exact opposite. To create a new world, I need to know as much as I can about the world around me.

Recently, I had a friend talk about trying out new, hard things — not just coasting by on the talents and skills she already had — to teach her children that new, hard things are worth doing. I chewed on that for days. Since college, I hadn’t really delved into a new discipline. I’d kept reading in my comfort zone. Both as a mom and a writer, I realized I could benefit from branching out.

So I jumped off the deep end and enrolled in a Coursera programming class (Coursera is free, online, and amazing). It’s been rewarding to explore a strange, new world. I don’t know if what I’ve learned will ever turn up in a story (okay, who am I kidding; it almost certainly will), but I figure everything I learn goes towards my education as a wourldbuilder and a writer of fantasy.

New Voice: Adriana Brad Schanen on Quinny & Hopper

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Adriana Brad Schanen is the first-time author of Quinny & Hopper (Hyperion, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Quinny and Hopper couldn’t be more different. They’re an unstoppable team. But when summer ends, things suddenly aren’t the same. 

Can Quinny and Hopper stick together in the face of stylish bullies, a killer chicken, and those brand new Third Grade Rules – especially the one that says they aren’t allowed to be friends anymore?

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? If so, what made you change your mind?

Quinny & Hopper alternates between the first-person voices of two polar-opposite eight-year-olds, whose intense summer friendship runs smack-dab into the uncertainties of a new school year.

I haven’t seen a ton of early middle grade fiction written in first-person (let alone in dual first-person). I suppose the thinking goes that it can be too immediate, maybe too emotionally claustrophobic for newly-independent readers. And it doesn’t offer the same opportunity for the writer to pull back and show context or convey a lesson (thank goodness for that).

But something told me to forge ahead with this structure. The idea of putting the reader in someone else’s shoes—or brain, rather – felt compelling to me. Why not go there?

Who says rising third graders are too young?

And I couldn’t think of a better way to encourage kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes than by actually doing it myself.

Oliver stares at Adriana as she types.

It also seemed that toggling back and forth between these two characters’ voices would create a bit more breathing room, and make for less of a hothouse feel than a solo first-person point of view.

I liked how two voices playing off each other can spark comedy, conflict, momentum, and foster empathy and perspective-taking.

Of course I did experiment and try third person – which felt more appropriate and authorly, and would probably have been easier to structure.

But it also felt like I was setting the narrative at an emotional remove. It just felt colder. I was creating distance, when I wanted the reader to be this close to the story.

So I went back to my intuition and wrote this young middle grade story in dual first-person voices. For me, it was the most visceral way of exploring the main characters’ psyches, and their blooming but fragile, ripped-to-shreds-and-stitched-back-together friendship.

In a way, their friendship is the book’s true main character. I watched it grow and falter due to misunderstandings, fear, outside pressures. I watched it survive and strengthen. I watched it all through the eyes of the two main characters themselves.

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 other writers?

I love connecting in a personal way with educators, parents and kids. Just chatting about books and life with actual people in the real world. Maybe that’s not really “marketing,” but I’m putting it in that category because, honestly, the over-the-top pushy stuff makes my skin crawl.

Meet Adriana Brad Schanen.

I’m guest-blogging a bit near my release date, but not going crazy. For early middle grade fiction, it doesn’t seem to be as impactful as things like school visits.

I think a great discussion/teacher’s guide is important – and thinking critically and creatively about all outreach to schools/libraries.

I’ve been reaching out with swag to independent booksellers.

In an age of mass emails, I love getting and sending personal notes.

As for social media in general, I don’t relish the idea of putting on a virtual sandwich board and hawking my literary wares online.

So I try to look at it as just another way to connect with and learn from others. Keep it low-key, not a stressor. I enjoy following educators, booksellers and writers on twitter – it’s a great way to expand my to-read list. I devote a couple of hours weekly (max!) to keeping up on industry news and a handful of blogs.

And instead of maintaining my own blog, I’m working on my next book. Which I keep hearing is the best thing a writer can do to market her/himself, anyway.

So basically I’m trying to keep promoting in its place: essential, but secondary to the writing itself. The fact is, so much of it is out of our control anyway. Someone will rip your book to shreds on Goodreads, someone will rave about it on Twitter. It’s all in a day.

You can’t let it distract or derail you — you have to move past all the noise, good and bad, and hold onto your own true internal motivation for doing the work.

Now doesn’t that sound easy?

New Voice: Maria E. Andreu on The Secret Side of Empty

Resources (Discussion Guide)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria E. Andreu is the first-time author of The Secret Side of Empty (Running Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But M.T. hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.

With senior year of high school kicking into full swing, M.T. sees her hopes for a “normal” future unraveling. And it will take discovering a sense of trust in herself and others for M.T. to stake a claim in the life that she wants.

Author Maria E. Andreu draws from her personal experience to tell a story that is timely, relevant, and universally poignant.

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

The first few drafts of what would later become my debut novel was written as a memoir. Like the protagonist in The Secret Side of Empty, I too was undocumented as a child and teenager. For years I worked on it, refined it and sent it off to agents. For years, I collected lovely and gracious rejections.

Young Maria

I worried that maybe I was just unpublishable. I often wondered if I was kidding myself thinking my book could be on bookshelves. I wanted it but I felt totally unworthy of it. The mounting rejection slips seemed to corroborate my fears.

Then, determined to get to the bottom of why I got so many rejections that said, “Love the voice but I’m going to pass,” I signed up for a pitch conference in New York City.

 A pitch conference (or “pitch slam” as it is sometimes called) is an opportunity to sit face-to-face with agents and pitch them your idea. Terrifying, but necessary, dangling as I was just with a few inches of writing hope left to grasp.

The day of the conference I could barely eat. The agents, legendary creatures, each sat at round banquet style tables.

 In front of them, a gaggle of about eight hopefuls clustered grasping query letters in sweaty hands, reading them aloud one by one.

After each, the agent gave his professional opinion.

Most of that day is hazy in my memory. I was miserable most of it, dreading my turn to speak. Also, when I looked out over the ballroom full of aspiring writers I was suffused with a vast hopelessness. “There is no way I’m going to make it when so many people are trying and are better than I am.”

There they were, solid and real, a crowded ballroom full of reasons why it would always be impossible to break through.

My last assigned agent was one whose name I’ve forgotten and whom I almost didn’t meet at all. Her bio said that she was looking for young adult titles. Since I wanted to write for grown-ups, I had no interest in her feedback. But I’d promised myself that I’d be open to the whole experience, no matter how painful or seemingly pointless. So I sat at her table. I wasn’t even nervous for this one, like I wouldn’t have been with a cookbook agent or a bicycle repairperson.

I read her my pitch. She asked me a few questions about particulars.

Finally she said, “It’s a great idea. I think the issue is that you’re trying to sell this as a book for grown-ups, but all the action happens when the protagonist is a teenager. This would make a great YA novel.”

I thought (but didn’t say), “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Then I thanked her politely and proceeded to completely ignore her advice.

Months later my daughter, who was 12 at the time, wanted to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, reprint 2011), a YA book that I thought might be too mature for her.

I decided to give the book a quick read, thinking I’d either ask her to save it for later or that I’d be ready for her questions when they did come.

Within a couple of pages I was absorbed by the beauty of the writing and the expert pacing of the story. My a-ha moment, months overdue, happened right then. Of course.

Who was I to think I shouldn’t write in this genre? I would be honored… no, humbled… to be included in a genre that contained words this beautiful and a book this well-done.

I reworked my idea into YA fiction. Looking for an agent, I opened up Speak and the other big YA book I could think of: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Little Brown, 2005). I was surprised to learn they were both with the same agency. I pitched them (and only them), then braced for the rejection.

Instead, what came was an offer of representation so beautiful that a copy of it still sits framed in my living room.
Extra bonus? Anderson and Andreu are very close together alphabetically. When my book finally hit bookshelves, there it was, face-out and pretty next to Anderson’s latest on the New Teen Reads shelf. What had seemed impossible had finally come to pass in the most magical way.

Follow Maria on Twitter @WriterSideofM

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

I’m kind of an obsessive planner, and I had plenty of time to study book promotion while I was getting rejections from agents. I read 1,001 Ways to Market Your Books by John Kremer (Open Horizons; 6th Edition, 2006) cover to cover. I scoured the internet, bookmarking sites. I created timelines and lists of ideas.

The conventional wisdom seemed to be that, even if you do get traditionally published, you should be prepared to promote your book as if you’re self-published. Because at the time I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to get traditionally published, I took that advice to heart. Either way, I’d have to learn to promote a book, so I might as well get started.

It was helpful because it taught me about the business. Later, when I was lucky enough to land with a very supportive publisher, I was delighted to learn that they would do a lot of the heavy lifting, like sending out review copies and setting up a blog tour. But my extensive research helped me know what questions to ask.

I decided early on that the motto for my debut year would be, “The answer is always ‘yes.’”

Library visit? Yes.

Blog post? Yes.

Every opportunity big and small got a “yes” without exception.

Was it exhausting? Absolutely. But if I had it to do over again I’d do exactly the same thing.

I have two reasons for that: one, I’ve learned a ton about book promotion, much of which will help me be choosier in what I do the next time around. But how would I know that a blog interview is much easier to do than a guest post unless I’d slogged through guest post after guest post, racking my brain trying to figure out how to clever and inventive?

How would I know that a school visit in which the kids have read the book tends to be a whole lot more fun for all involved than one in which the kids haven’t unless I’d tap-danced my way through both?

The experience has been invaluable.

The second reason is that when you’re just starting out you’re just an unknown entity in a crowded world. Book buzz is built by people. Readers, yes, but also librarians and booksellers, reviewers and bloggers. Every opportunity to interact with one, busy as they all are, is a gift.

I did one event where only three people showed up in the rain. But I put on a show like we had a standing room only crowd. One of those people turned out to be a high school librarian that spread news of my book to her school and brought kids from her reading club to a subsequent (much better-attended) event that I did. Because you never know where things can lead, give it your all every time.

Probably one of the best things I did before my book came out was join an online group of authors whose debut books were scheduled to come out the same year as mine (OneFourKidLit). There are lists like this one for every debut year. Even if you haven’t yet sold your book, you can find similar communities at places like SCBWI and online writing communities.

OneFourKidLit has been great for me because, although I have an amazing support system, sometimes the people who care about you don’t understand everything about publishing. So when I’m stressing trying to juggle writing my new book and promoting my first one or trying to figure out how to get booked on book festivals, it’s great to have a group of people who are in the same boat. Otherwise it can be a pretty lonely and stressful boat!

Celebrating with the family!

I do love book promotion.

Having a chance to talk about a labor of love that it took me years to bring into the world?

What’s not to love?

If I had one bit of advice for people both aspiring to be published and those newly so, it is this: Never lose your sense of wonder. Writing, figuring out meanings and how to convey them, learning to connect with your readers, this is the important work of life. The rest of it: Deadlines, bad reviews, rejections, grumpy book people, they’re just details.

Hold on to the feeling that you’re doing what you’re here to do.

What can be more important than that?

Maria’s Writing Assistants

New Voice: Kate Hannigan on Cupcake Cousins

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kate Hannigan is the first time author of Cupcake Cousins, illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes (Hyperion, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Baking a fluffy pink cupcake is awesome, but wearing a dress that looks like one? No, thank you!

Cousins Willow and Delia can’t wait to spend a week vacationing together with their families. Their aunt is getting married, and Willow and Delia are hoping their tasty baked goods will be enough to get them out of being flower girls in the wedding.

But with a mischievous little brother, a bacon-loving dog, and a misbehaving blender in the mix, their treats don’t exactly turn out as planned. When a real emergency threatens to ruin the wedding, will their baking skills be enough to save the day?

Join Willow and Delia in the kitchen by following their scrumptious recipes for whoopee pies, peach pancakes, and other tasty treats!

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

I was lucky enough to attend an intimate writing workshop with the remarkable Richard Peck here in Illinois a few years back. And it was listening to him speak, as he explained his personal approach to writing – old-school, of course, on an electric typewriter and paper – that I had my “ah-ha!” moment.

He talked about telling his stories, and that once he reached the end and typed up that final page of his manuscript, he immediately flipped to the very first chapter of his book and threw it out.

Tossed the whole first chapter into the trash!

“Then I’ll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I’ll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”

Here’s where he speaks about his approach to writing in a 2003 interview in Publishers Weekly.

Richard’s reasoning was that we don’t know where we’re going with our story until we finally get there. And that knowledge we possess at the end changes the first steps of the journey.

This was a huge revelation, and it stayed with me as I wrote my debut novel, Cupcake Cousins, as well as my historical fiction, The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015), and as I am writing Books No. 2 and 3 in the Cupcake Cousins series.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

My motto for promoting Cupcake Cousins has been simple: Just Ask.

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest child in my family, but I’ve always believed in the notion that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. So in thinking about promoting this book, I’ve taken a policy of just going for it. The worst that can happen is someone telling me “no.” And while I’ve heard plenty of “no’s” so far, here are three examples of Yes:

1) My book features strong girls who are pursuing their interests. Both cousins love to cook, but curly-haired Willow dreams of being a real chef one day. I like to cook (though sometimes I’m a little dangerous in the kitchen), and when the budget allows, my husband and I love dining out.

Kate experiments with cake pops!

One of my favorite places is called Girl and the Goat, a spectacular Chicago spot owned by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard.

One night when we were there, Chef Izard stepped into the dining area and chatted with a few customers. Then she politely greeted my husband and me, and asked what brought us in that night.

After a quick nod to our similar hair – we both sport crazy curls – I explained that we’d come to Girl and the Goat to celebrate some good news about Cupcake Cousins.

When Stephanie heard it involved a girl who aspired to be a professional chef, she was all cheers.

Later that night, I couldn’t sleep. Stephanie and her curly hair. My character Willow and her curls. The girl-power dreams of being a professional chef in a male-dominated field.

In the wee hours of the night, I opened up Facebook and sent Stephanie a “. . . this is crazy, but I’ve just got to ask. . .” message. And I am thrilled to be able to say that super-girl-power Top Chef Stephanie Izard contributed a blurb for Cupcake Cousins!

2) The second example I have for “just ask” involves book selling. I live near a delightful indie, 57th Street Books, in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side. It’s where our SCBWI network holds its meetings, where my kids find birthday gifts, where we do most of our book shopping.

But I’m also a Costco shopper. Great wine, gluten-free flour in bulk, and you can’t beat the prices on vegetables! Another thing about Costco, they sell books. Tons and tons of books.

So I thought, maybe they could sell mine. So I pulled out my stationery box, picked up a pen in hand, and wrote a simple note. “. . . this is crazy, but I’ve got to ask. . .”

Bella in fall

The address and contact person to inquire about selling my book at Costco was fairly easy to find. But summoning the courage to go for it, that was a different thing. Sometimes this book-selling world feels like a great-big impersonal place. How can my sweet little book about kids and cooking and summertime adventures bubble up? But if we don’t ask, we’ll never know what we can accomplish.

I took a deep breath and called the regional headquarters; for me in Illinois, that was their Oak Brook office. From there, I was given a telephone number to their corporate headquarters in Washington. Getting bounced around from place to place made me lose steam. And I’m not so good with impersonal exchanges. “Who may I ask for once I reach the corporate headquarters?” I asked. “Can I have a name? A person to talk to?”

“Oh, honey, you’re not going to talk to anyone. It’s just an automated message!”

Once the next phone call connected me to the corporate office, I quickly wrote down the address for Costco’s headquarters and the name of the book buyer. I had to call back a few times to get it right.

After a few web searches to confirm the spelling of her name, I sent off my hand-written note (never underestimate the power of the hand-written note) and my ARC. Here’s where:

Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Book Buyer
Costco Wholesale
999 Lake Drive
Issaquah, WA 98027

After a few weeks of feeling like a giant idiot – during which a few author friends scoffed at my efforts! – I received a lovely email from an assistant book buyer for Costco who said not only would she work with my publisher’s rep to sell the books in Chicago Costco stores, but she’d arrange for book signings as well. I was over the moon, and the book buyer’s warmth made it all the better.

“Our warehouses really like to support local authors, especially if they are members. Have a great weekend!”

Suddenly this great-big-scary publishing world felt very human again.

3) I realize that the personal connection matters to me. This should be a fun experience, right? I know plenty of authors who have done book events to empty houses. One friend said at one of her events, she wound up doing a reading to one, lone listener. And he was the bookstore employee sweeping up the floors. So I decided to reach out to handful of other middle-grade authors I’ve gotten to know in Chicago’s thriving, incredibly supportive writing community.

I host a blog where I interview writers of picture books and middle-grade, and I often try to spotlight Chicago and Midwest authors. So I decided to ask if any of them might be interested in doing a sort of middle-grade jam session – forming a gang of sorts, a cabal, coterie, band, posse, a Middle-Grade in the Midwest syndicate.

“. . . this is crazy, but I’ve just got to ask. . . ,” I said in my email.

And every one of them said yes.

So beginning in May, once my book hits the shelves along with the rest of theirs, look for the six MGMers – Amy Timberlake, Liesl Shurtliff, Michele Weber Hurwitz, Emily Fairlie, Wendy McClure, and Kate Hannigan – at a book event near you!

There is strength, and fun, in numbers.

Cynsational Notes

Author Of… The writers behind great children’s stories – from picture books to middle-grade, novels to non-fiction from Kate Hannigan.

Magic teacup Kate uses while writing.

New Voice: Megan Jean Sovern on The Meaning of Maggie

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Megan Jean Sovern is the first-time author of The Meaning of Maggie (Chronicle, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old Maggie Mayfield can’t stop thinking about Oreos and this is just one of her many conundrums. 

She also has two older sisters with bods that don’t stop and she has to wait to campaign for president for almost an entire quarter century.

Then in one summer, her conundrums triple when her father takes a fall at work. What happened? The truth? It’s not what happened to him, it’s what’s happening to him.

The Meaning of Maggie is a novel set in a house too small for all the big problems plaguing a smart girl just trying to survive adolescence armed with after school snacks and deep thoughts.When her father’s legs permanently fall asleep, Maggie begins a search for meaning that she never expected.

And just like that, getting a B doesn’t seem like such a huge deal*.

*Okay getting a B is still a huge deal. But you get the idea.

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

Maggie’s story is inspired by my own. But she’s so different, cooler, more confident and more hotheaded than I ever was. I didn’t want her to have any of my meekness especially when it came to getting to know her dad and what was happening to him. I really shied away from ever wanting to know more about the progression of my own dad’s MS. But Maggie faces it head on. And I love that about her. I love that she goes all in. She pulls up her bootstraps. She’s always searching for more.

The secondary characters of Maggie’s mom, dad and sisters take turns leading her in and out of darkness. But I wanted the reader to always trust them. They really do always have Maggie’s best interest in mind even when that best interest drives her bananas.

And I really consider Maggie’s dad’s MS to be the main antagonist. It has a personality and purpose all its own. And it constantly challenges the family and how they relate to one another. It’s the villain that pulls them a part but eventually pushes them back together.

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?

Fate and Google connected me with my super agent Marietta Zacker.

I really had no idea what I was doing. So I researched online how to put together a query letter and then I made a list of twelve agents who represented work that I really loved. I received a few notes of interest right away but they didn’t pan out for one reason or another. And then a month after I had queried Marietta, she called me.

And it was magic. I felt instantly connected and inspired by her. She’s funny and fiery and everything I needed. And she ruined my life and told me to start over completely and write Maggie from first person. And she was totally right. She encouraged me to give it all I had.

My initial manuscript was very timid. And she shook that out of me. So maybe she didn’t ruin my life. Maybe she made it 1000% better.

I took her advice and she disappeared. And then almost a year later, I sent her a completely revised and ready Maggie. She read it in one night and signed me the next day.

I cried buckets.

New Voice: Rebecca Behrens on When Audrey Met Alice

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rebecca Behrens is the first-time author of When Audrey Met Alice (Sourcebooks, 2014). From the promotional copy:

When frustrated First Daughter Audrey Rhodes discovers Alice Roosevelt’s secret diary hidden beneath the White House floorboards, she’s inspired to ask herself, “What would Alice do?” Audrey’s Alice-like antics are a lot of fun—but will they bring her happiness, or a host of new problems?

It is ridiculously difficult to get a pizza delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

First Daughter Audrey Rhodes can’t wait for the party she has planned. The decorations are all set, and the pizza is on its way. But the Secret Service must be out to ruin her life, because they cancel at the last minute for a “security breach,” squashing Audrey’s chances for making any new friends. 

What good is having your own bowling alley if you don’t have anyone to play with?

Audrey is ready to give up and spend the next four years totally friendless—until she discovers Alice Roosevelt’s hidden diary. The former first daughter’s outrageous antics give Audrey a ton of ideas for having fun . . . and get her into more trouble than she can handle.

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

I’ve also found a great deal of emotional and professional support from two debut-author groups I’m a part of: OneFour Kid Lit and the Class of 2K14. The OneFours are an inclusive group of kid-lit writers debuting in 2014. Within the group, the middle-grade authors have banded together to do some group blogging (our Mad for MG feature is on the OneFour blog the first Monday of each month). I’ve loved the opportunity to read some members’ ARCs a little early—there are so many amazing debut books being published next year!

The Class of 2K14 is a group of twenty middle-grade and young-adult authors who’ve formed a marketing collective, specifically to reach out to booksellers, teachers, and librarians.

We have a few panels and events in the works and have worked hard to pool our resources for a few splashy ads and promotional videos. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to get to know the talented authors in the group, and I think we all benefit from the collective experience and expertise of the group as we speed through the debut year. I’m continually impressed and grateful for the generosity of those in the writing community.

I also am very fortunate to be a part of a group of middle-grade and young-adult writers in New York City, unofficially known as “Write Night.” We meet at least one evening a week—sometimes more frequently—at a café. First, we eat and talk shop: sharing a shiny new idea, discussing how our revisions are going, updating what’s happening in the querying process, debating where a launch party should be held. As soon as plates are cleared (and coffee mugs are filled), laptops come out and we all sit at a big table and write. Sometimes for hours; we’ve been known to close down the café.

The best part of Write Night, of course, is the camaraderie. As a group, we don’t formally critique one another’s work, although critique and beta partnerships have developed within it. (And it’s great to have other writers at a table with you when you need a little help with a sentence or a scene.)

Instead, it’s an encouraging group of like-minded, dedicated people. Every writer has ups and downs at every stage of the process, and we celebrate and support each other as needed.

I do work full-time, and I have to admit that there are days when I hop the subway to go from my office to wherever Write Night is meeting, and I don’t feel particularly enthused about working for a few hours. But once I sit down with the group that always changes.

There is something so special, motivating and powerful, about looking up from your screen to see a half dozen other writers hard at work. The focus and creativity are contagious!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of leaving a successful Write Night: a brigade of happy, hardworking writer-friends walking in the shadow of the main branch of the New York Public Library toward the subway and home.

The group existed long before I joined, and I am so thankful to have been welcomed into it.

As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language of the era for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?

My book blends contemporary and historical fiction, with about one third of the novel being composed of fictional diary entries written by a teenage Alice Roosevelt.

So I was concerned not only with capturing the voices of her era (the East Coast and particularly Washington, D.C., in the early twentieth century) but with capturing the voice of a real historical figure.

I knew when I started writing, though, that I wanted to create Alice as a fictional character. That’s partly because I’m not a historian (as much as I love history and a good research project), and partly because sometimes good fiction and factual accuracy are at odds with each other.

For this book, I knew I would want to side with storytelling.

Before I wrote any of Alice’s fictional diary, I read extensively about her life. However, I stayed away from a few things: I didn’t read the autobiography she published, and I tried not to read too much about her later life (until I’d completed a first draft). I didn’t want knowledge about what happened to Alice as an older person to color her feelings as a teenager, at least as I imagined them. I also didn’t want her first-person writing in my head as I created “my” Alice’s voice.

Word choice is tricky when writing historical fiction, particularly when writing in a first-person point of view. I spent a lot of time looking up words and terms in dictionaries (I am a huge fan of the Online Etymology Dictionary.) That gave me a good idea of what language Alice might’ve used and which terms came into usage after her time.

An example is the word fussbudget: in early drafts, Alice repeatedly complained about her stepmother having “fussbudget” ideas. But that term didn’t come into use until 1904—after the fictional diary entries, which span 1901-1903. Fussbox came into use in 1901, so I substituted that.

I’m sure there are inconsistencies throughout the novel, in terms of historical details or language. Some of them are intentional—while I wanted to make Alice’s diary entries as believable and accurate as possible, I also wanted this book to be accessible to middle-grade readers—and fun!

Rebecca on the White House grounds

I didn’t want language to get in the way of the storytelling or the characters, so I took some liberties along the way.

Throughout the diary entries, I did incorporate quotes and anecdotes from the real Alice.

Coming from an academic background, I struggled with how to attribute the research I did to find that information. Including foot- or end notes would be distracting to a reader, and complicated by how I blended fiction and fact throughout. My editor suggested that I create an annotated diary, in which I point out what’s “real” and provide information about my sources. That document, Alice For Real, is available on my publisher’s website.

I think there is a fine line, when writing historical fiction, between writing a credible and accurate period story and writing something too bogged down in the facts and details. I hope I did a good job of balancing those two elements!

My goal was to make Alice a fascinating enough character that readers might be inspired to learn more about the real Alice, her family, and her time period—or about history in general.

New Voice: Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemic

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Yvonne Ventresca is the first-time author of Pandemic (Sky Pony, 2014)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Only a few people know what caused Lilianna Snyder’s sudden change from a model student to a withdrawn pessimist who worries about all kinds of disasters. 

When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil’s worst fears are realized. 

With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak–her journalist father in Delaware covering the early stages of the disease and her mother in Hong Kong and unable to get a flight back to New Jersey–Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread fatal illness.

With friends and neighbors dying around her, Lil does everything she can to survive. 

Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door. 

Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but also her own personal demons.

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?

The premise of Pandemic is that a deadly, contagious bird flu strikes the U.S. and an emotionally traumatized teen needs to survive on her own. Most of my research focused on the logistics of a pandemic and its consequences.

Yvonne’s blog

The deadliest influenza that Americans have experienced occurred in 1918, so I started my pandemic research in that era, with books like The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (Penguin Books, 2005) and Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni (TV Books, 1999).

I also read about current emerging infectious diseases in books like Spillover by David Quammen (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) and Secret Agents: Emerging Epidemics by Madeline Drexler (Penguin Books, 2010).

Many people don’t realize that we’ve lived through a recent pandemic that was highly contagious, but fortunately not exceedingly deadly. The H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic of 2009 is well-documented on the website, so I started with that illness as a rough model for some aspects of my fictional disease.

Next, I needed to figure out how a pandemic experience today would differ from one a century ago. Because of airplane travel, for instance, diseases today spread much faster than 1918 when a rural town could try to isolate itself. I made a list of realistic complications that could occur and I worked many of those into the story. For example, what happens if we lose our electricity and all the service people are too sick to make repairs?

The story is set in New Jersey, and another source of information was government preparedness documents. I was surprised to find some plans online, like the state’s “Antiviral Distribution Plan.” I also found a 2005 Homeland Security Document, “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.”

Based on their planning assumptions, I tried to think about other complications. For example, many people think it is most likely that a pandemic would start someplace else, like Asia, and as a result the U.S. would have a warning period. What if that turned out to be untrue and we had little or no time to prepare?

I didn’t experience any roadblocks but had to fight the tendency to over-research. For example, I spent a lot of time checking the spring migratory flyways of waterfowl when I should have been writing instead. I have a whole folder on “Birds” research which I didn’t really use.

One of my best resources was an interview I did with a local health officer. I generally prefer to interview people by email or phone, but I met him in person in 2011. He spoke frankly about the H1N1 experience and gave me insight into what problems could potentially occur if a more deadly pandemic struck.

He also shared some local planning documents that were in the process of being updated based on what they learned from the H1N1 pandemic. It was educational and also inspired some ideas, like the news story Lil (the main character) sees about who should receive the antiviral first if supplies were limited.

Besides books, online searches, and interviews, I’m a big fan of automated news alerts through email. I used Google Alerts and Talkwalker (both free) to keep me updated on newsworthy items that I might have been able to incorporate into Pandemic.

As a result of all my research, I tend to wash my hands more than the average person.

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?

Yvonne’s promotional files

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how to promote a book and reach readers. As I waited (with cautious optimism) to hear back from my editor about the acquisition of Pandemic, I started reading marketing books and articles. (I had been saving articles since 2005!)

One of my favorite marketing books is Everyday Book Marketing by Midge Raymond (Ashland Creek Press, 2013). From my research, I made a list of possible ideas, some of which I ultimately discarded, but many of which I’m using. I think of this debut book period as the time of saying “yes.”

As in, yes I will visit that library in the town I’ve never heard of to speak about Pandemic. Yes, I will submit proposals to be on faculty at SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences. And yes, I will bowl at an event with teen readers even though my bowling skills are non-existent.

I decided early in the process to hire a freelance publicist (Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations) to work with Sky Pony’s team to help promote the book. It’s been great to have her to help with the process, and she’s been an excellent source of knowledge and support. She’s been able to supplement Sky Pony’s efforts with activities like creating a press kit and reaching out to additional reviewers.

I’ve also joined an online group (UncommonYA) to support each other’s books, and a regional group (Kidlit Author’s Club) to do appearances together. It’s helpful to go through the promotion-journey with other writers.

In terms of concrete actions, I’ve developed postcards and bookmarks and swag. I created a mailing list of target libraries to let them know about Pandemic. Twitter (@YvonneVentresca) is my favorite social media, and I’ll be teaching twitter to writers at the New England SCBWI conference later in the spring.

I’ve stepped up my social media presence in general, and began blogging twice a week, with one post always geared toward teen writers. Revamping my website was gratifying as it evolved.

My other activities include guest blogging, planning my launch party, and participating in a few upcoming festivals.

My advice to other debut authors is to figure out what others are doing (through books, articles, or researching online), then do what is comfortable for you. If you like a certain form of social media better than others, focus on the one that doesn’t feel like a burden.

You should experiment, but don’t feel like you have to give the same level of commitment to every idea you try.

Overall, the promotion phase has been an enjoyable one for me. I like to think of it as a big experiment (although it’s hard to tell exactly what the results will be). I’ve created two lists to keep me sane: one of accomplishments, to keep track of what I get done each month, and one of acts of kindness, so I’ll remember all the wonderful things people have done to help me throughout this process.

Rocky and Luna in Yvonne’s office–they keep her company and bark out the window.

Cynsational Notes

See additional resources on topics related to the novel such as pandemics, preparing for emergencies, and getting help for victims of sexual assault.