Guest Post: Harold Underdown on Line Editing

Harold Underdown

By Harold Underdown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eileen Robinson and I have been teaching about revision for several years now through our partnership, Kid’s Book Revisions.

Until recently, we hadn’t taught about line-editing–it seemed too complicated, too messy, for a workshop approach–but we thinking we’ve figured out how to do it. I’d like to tell you why you should learn about line-editing, show what line-editing is and how to do it, give you a couple of exercises to do, and point you to some places where you can learn more about it.

Line-editing is an in-between stage of editing, with developmental editing coming before it and copy-editing after. It’s often done by an in-house editor.

Why should you take the time to learn about it?

I can give you three reasons.

Though there are limits to how objective anyone can be with their own writing, you can use line-editing to make your manuscripts better. You can also trade line-edits with writer friends, as you might do with beta reads, which could help with the objectivity problem.

And as author Jo Knowles pointed out, learning line-editing skills could lead to “freelance editorial opportunities.”

To understand what line-editing is, it helps to know what comes before and after.

Developmental editing comes before–that’s the stage when an editor works with a writer on the big issues, such as plot, characterization, voice, and so on.

After line-editing comes copy-editing, when an editor typically lets go of what’s seen as a finished manuscript, so that it can be prepared for publication by the copy-editor, who typically works on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the like.

What’s left between those stages?

Editing at the sentence and paragraph level, done line by line (hence the name), covering problems in description, dialogue, pacing, and sentence structure, requiring the line-editor not only to spot specific writing problems but to bring their editorial judgment to bear and ask questions and make comments about focus, clarity, or what’s left in or left out.

The boundaries between these three stages are blurred, of course, but overall, that’s what you can expect as a manuscript moves through them.

Line-editing can be done in one of two ways–on paper or on screen. Line-editing was always done on paper until the arrival of personal computers and electronic workflows, and that approach is still used by some editors today.

Here’s an example courtesy of Emma Dryden, done on a picture book manuscript we provided to her and some other editors as a sample. As you can see, she wants to trim a lot of the text. She has comments, and she has a few suggestions. If she had even more comments, she might have added them on Post-it notes.

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More and more these days, editors like to do their line-editing on screen, using the Track Changes and Comments features in Word.

Just as with line-editing by hand, heavy editing can lead to a confusing visual display, and writers often have to pick carefully through the manuscript to make sense of them. Here’s an example of work that editor Karen Boss did on that same passage, this time on screen.

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As you can see from these two short examples, there’s a lot going on in line-editing, which is why it’s typically learned by young editors in house, in an apprenticeship kind of process, watching more senior editors do it, and then doing it themselves with supervision.

How can you learn to do it on your own?

We think it’s possible to learn via a two-part process, first practicing identifying and fixing specific issues in isolation, and then doing actual line-editing with the help of “mentor examples.”

We are planning to do this in a seven-plus hour workshop this fall, but to give you a feel for it, we’ve got a couple of examples here.

This first example is set up as a puzzle.

We’ve taken a passage from Gail Carson Levine‘s Dave at Night (HarperCollins, 1999) and scrambled it. Your task is to put it back in the correct order. This requires you to think about what sentence makes the most sense as the opening sentence, what would best follow after it, and so on.

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Though this is an artificial exercise, a writer has to make decisions like this in action sequences, so we think it’s a good way to sharpen your thinking around this area.

Once you’ve done your best with the passage, scroll down to see how the passage was actually published. We would agree that other sequences are possible, but see if you can figure out the logic of that sequence.

Why does the first sentence make sense as the first? Why are the second, third, and fourth sentences together, and why in that order?

Continue asking yourself questions like these through to the end.

To line-edit well, of course, editors must do much more than put sentences in the best possible order, fix run-on sentences, eliminate clumsy phrasing, and the like, though doing those things is a required part of line-editing.

Correct sequence for Dave at Night excerpt (click image to enlarge)

Editors must also bring their editorial judgment to bear on a line-by-line basis, and ask questions and make comments to help the writer see where they need to make improvements.

To learn how to do that aspect of line-editing, we believe it’s essential to see actual examples of line-editing being done. As I mentioned previously, as we worked on our course, we asked some editors to provide sample line-edits, and in the course itself we show how multiple editors responded to the same passage.

I will share one example here. Take a look at this sample, which is the opening paragraph for a middle-grade novel with a setting on a planet other than our own–it’s a sort of vacation planet, visited by many different kinds of beings. Shelpa is the main character.

If you encountered this passage, what comments and questions would you have about this as a line-editor?

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Now compare your notes to what editor Marlo Garnsworthy had to say.

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She had a suggestion about the first sentence (as a side note, almost all of the editors we shared the passage with had a comment here–but all of their comments were different!), followed by a clarifying question, a comment phrased as a question, and then a comment on something she liked.

These are good examples of the kinds of things editors do when they line-edit.

As Emma Dryden did by hand in the passage I showed earlier, they may also suggest deletions, re-orderings, and even additions, but engaging with the writer via questions and comments is a large part of the process.

So, where can you go to learn more? There’s no one book that I know of that is “about” line-editing, but I do want to recommend a few for reference:

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins, 2004): this is aimed at adult writers, but much of the editing it covers is line-editing. 
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2017): this is more of a reference book, but does have some guidance regarding types of sentences and correct syntax. 
  • The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein (W.W. Norton, 2016): chapter 16 offers an extended and annotated line-editing sample. 
  • A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman (W.W. Norton, 2016): this crosses over into copy-editing issues but provides help with punctuation, for those who need it.

But if you really want to learn how to line-edit, I hope you will join our class, “An Introduction to the Practical Side and the Mysteries of Line-Editing.” Our first session will be at 8:30 p.m. Eastern  Sept. 26. Registration is still open.

Cynsational Notes

Harold Underdown is an independent editor and publishing consultant; he does critiques, helps to develop manuscripts, does strategic consulting, and provides other services for individuals and publishers.

Harold enjoys teaching, and in that role wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing (Penguin Random House, 2008), now in its third edition. He founded and runs “The Purple Crayon,” a respected website with information about the children’s publishing world.

He speaks and gives workshops through the Highlights Foundation, SCBWI‘s national and regional conferences, and Kid’s Book Revisions (offering online and on-site tutorials, webinars, retreats, and workshops in partnership with Eileen Robinson).

As an in-house editor, he worked at Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, and has experience in trade and educational publishing.

Interview: Author Christine Marciniak & Editor Madeline Smoot on Once Upon a Princess

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The popularity of the recent royal wedding illustrates society’s continued fascination with monarchies. 

A new middle grade novel, Once Upon A Princess by Christine Marciniak (CBAY, 2018) offers a twist on familiar tropes. From the promotional copy:

After a coup in her country, Her Royal Highness, Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Morh (or Fritzi to her friends), wakes up one day no longer a princess. 


Stuck hiding in a suburban American middle school dealing with mean girls, cafeteria lunches, and teachers who don’t understand (or know about) her unique situation, Fritzi just wants to go home to her kingdom and be a princess again. 


She turns to social media for help, but will her efforts work or make everything worse? With opposition forces trying to force her father’s abdication from the throne, Fritzi discovers that being a true princess doesn’t come from a title.



I recently talked with Christine about the book’s path to publication and her CBAY Books editor, Madeline Smoot about her current manuscript wish list.


There are lots of Cinderella stories about average girls becoming princesses, but you decided to flip that trope. Can you tell me what inspired that idea?

Every little girl wants to grow up to be a princess (or a warrior, I suppose). The Cinderella tropes you mention are proof of that. It’s the classic fantasy. One day I will wake up and be something completely different, something much more fascinating.

Like you said, I took that and turned it on it’s head. What if a Princess wakes up and finds out that she’s just an ordinary middle schooler? What would that look like? How would that even happen?

The inspiration for the idea came from Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries (HarperCollins, 2000), and wondering, “what if.”

What if this story were flipped? Almost immediately I came up with the title and the name for my Princess, the rest took a while to get right. 

How did you approach developing the character of Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr? (Since I’m assuming you’re not a princess….) 

I’m not a princess. I’ve complained to my father about that, but he says there’s not much he can do, since no one is likely to make him a king.

For Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr (Fritzi for short), I tried to think what would make her different from the average middle school student and the thing that came to me was that as a princess she would have no shortage of confidence.

Middle school kids are at that awkward stage of growing up where they aren’t little children anymore, but they are not old enough to have real responsibility or freedom, and everything is changing and more often than not they are not sure of themselves or their place in the world.

Fritzi, on the other hand, is very sure of that. She’s a princess. She is special. This has been ingrained in her since she was small.

This confidence doesn’t go away when she goes into hiding and it colors her interactions with everyone from the school secretary to the “mean girl.”

What was your path to publication like for this book? 

Rollercoaster would probably be a good way to describe it.

I’d actually started the book about ten years ago, but only wrote a dozen or so pages before putting it aside for other projects. Several years later, I picked it up and finished it, sent it to beta readers, revised and polished and queried agents.

And then something happened that had never happened with any of my previous books: an agent signed me. This was heady stuff, and I had visions of bestseller lists and movie deals.

Alas, this was not to be the immediate path.
Although there was interest from various publishers, no one that my agent sent it to ended up buying it. As a result, after a year my agent and I parted ways (okay, he dumped me; there I said it).

Christine’s summer office

But I was not ready to give up on this book. I took all the rejection letters from the various editors and compiled them, and searched for common ground.

At that time, part of the story had Fritzi traveling back to Europe on her own to try to save the kingdom. It turned out that this part of the story was a stumbling block for quite a few people. So I took it out and revised and decided to try my own luck at submitting the book to publishers.

I chose Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books because I’d had other interactions with her and I had read and enjoyed some of the books she’d published.

Much to my delight, Madeline accepted the book and with a few more minor revisions it was ready to go.
It’s been a long road, but the destination has definitely been worth the journey.

Madeline, what drew you to this story?


I was drawn to the strong voice Christine gave Fritzi in this book. She stood out not just because of her confidence, but also from her resilience. Her world is falling apart, and she does complain about it, but she also tries to proactively take concrete steps to fix things.

I also loved the idea of turning the rags-to-riches trope on its head. There are various stories where the regular person discovers they are an aristocrat or royalty, but very few tales that go the other way. I love books that upend our expectations like this one does.

What Christine does when she’s not writing

Christine, what advice do you have for beginning writers?

Don’t be afraid to revise.

So often I see revisions that amount to not much more than changing the wording here and there or adding a few more descriptive passages. I’ve taken huge chunks out of stories and replaced them with something different. In another of my books, I re-wrote the first chapter so many times I could probably publish the outtakes as a full-length novel.

Figure out early what the core of your story is.

In the case of Once Upon A Princess, it was that a princess discovers she’s not a princess any more, and she wants to save her kingdom and become a princess again. No matter what revisions the story went through, that basic concept remained the same.

I had really liked the section of the story where Fritzi ran away to Europe and encountered adventures on her own. I did research into the airports and the youth hostels and all sorts of things. I figured out the train schedules and how you get from Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station.

Basically, it was a lot of research and a lot of words – nearly a third of the story – and I could have stuck to my guns and kept that part in, despite the overwhelming response that it was pulling the rest of the story down.

Instead, I deleted it and ultimately made the story much better. I had to realize that the important aspect of the story wasn’t Fritzi running around Europe, but Fritzi trying to save her kingdom… and in this day and age, she could do that with social media.

The key is to not give up, to keep writing, and revise, revise, revise.

Editor Madeline Smoot

Madeline, I noticed CBAY Books has a query window opening up. What would you most love to see in your inbox?

My manuscript wish list includes:

  • Tween-voiced fantasy or science fiction with a strong first person voice. 
  • Adventures or mysteries in a fantasy or science fiction setting or with fantastic elements.
  • Genre mashups (as long as fantasy or science fiction is at least one of the genres).

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Once Upon a Princess, “children who have faced changes in their circumstances will welcome the message.”

Christine Marciniak was born in Philadelphia, but has spent most of her life in New Jersey.

She started her writing career as the editor of The Official Cruise Guide. When her second child was born, she stayed home full time to raise her children and write fiction.

She has written several books for middle grade, young adults, and adults and hopes to write many more.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books and former Editorial Director for Children’s Books of Blooming Tree Press.

She blogs about writing at Buried in the Slush Pile and is the author of several writing guides, including Story Slices: How to Make Story Plotting a Piece of Cake.

Madeline lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, a cat, a dog, and more books than should fit in any normal person’s house.

New Voice: JoAnne Stewart Wetzel on Playing Juliet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

JoAnne Stewart Wetzel is the first-time novelist of Playing Juliet (Sky Pony, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Beth Sondquist, 12 1/2, secretly dreams of playing William Shakespeare’s Juliet. 

When she learns the children’s theatre in her town is threatened with closure, she and her best friend, Zandy Russell, do everything they can to save it. 

But since Beth keeps breaking one theatre superstition after another in the process, she may never get onstage again.



Quotes from Shakespeare bookmark each chapter and foreshadow the next plot twist as a multicultural cast of kids fights to keep their theatre open.

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

I love to revise. When I started my first novel, Playing Juliet, I worked on the first chapter for months. It was polished and perfect before I went on to the second chapter.

But by the time I had finished the first draft, the characters had changed, the plot had changed and I had to throw the whole first chapter out.

When the draft was finished, a New York editor read the first ten pages at a SCBWI conference. Of course I was expecting her to offer to buy it on the spot (don’t we all) or at least to ask to see the full. Instead, she said she didn’t find my main character, Beth, charming.

Charming? A 12-and-a-half-year-old narrator focused on getting onstage while her costume was falling apart had other things to worry about besides being charming. But I read over the chapter carefully. While Beth’s focus was appropriate, was she a little self-centered? What if I had her do something for someone else?

Inspiration! Just So Stories, Palo Alto (CA) Children’s Theater

I added exactly six sentences to an early scene that showed the cast waiting in the wings to go on. Beth notices that a younger actor playing a mouse is nervous, remembers that it’s the Mouse’s first play and that she’d seen her reapply her make-up in the dressing room at least four times.

Though they have to be very quiet backstage, Beth whispers, “Great nose.” and outlines a circle on her own.

Sometimes it only takes six sentences. When the book was published, the review in the School Library Journal began “In this charming story featuring a relatable narrator and action-driven plot…” A blurb by the author Miriam Spitzer Franklin ended by saying the book “introduces a protagonist who will steal your heart as she chases after her dreams.”

Another reader pointed out that while Playing Juliet started with lots of references to the superstitions around MacBeth and ended with a production of Romeo and Juliet, a few of the earlier chapters had almost no reference to Shakespeare. Was there a way to weave him into the rest of the book?

There was no room to introduce another play into this middle-grade story but I’d always loved reading books with epigraphs. Could I find enough quotes from Shakespeare’s writings to serve as appropriate epigraphs before each chapter?

 I used the Open Source Shakespeare search engine, typed in a word like “jewel” or “duchess” and got a list of all the appearances of these words in his works. The perfect epigraph kept jumping out at me.

For the chapter in which the kids are looking for a lost diamond bracelet, I quoted “Search for a jewel that too casually Hath left mine arm” from “Cymbeline.”

“What think you of a duchess? have you limbs to bear that load of title?” from “Henry VIII” made the perfect epigraph for the chapter in which Beth is asked if she can cover the part of a Duchess for an actor down with the flu during the run of “Cinderella!”

Joanne & daughter seeing Royal Shakespeare Co.

I was excited when an editor told me she’d brought the manuscript to committee, even when she added that they’d like to see a rewrite. They were uncomfortable with a scene in which Beth and two of her friends sneak out at night to break into the Children’s Theatre.

I loved that scene. It was scary and exciting and the kids had the best of intentions. But I could make the plot work without it, so I took it out.

That editor didn’t take the book. The next two editors it was sent to both commented that they felt the story was too quiet.

I put the scene back in. It wasn’t necessary to the plot but it was vital to the development of the characters, for it showed what they would sacrifice to save their theater. The book sold right after that scene was restored.

I’ve brought all of the lessons I learned writing my first novel to the next one I’m currently working on. I’m going to finish the whole manuscript before I start to revise.

I will honor each critique I get, and find a way to solve any problem that’s been identified. It could lead to a much richer book and may only take six sentences. But I will also evaluate how the changes have affected the story and if they don’t help, I’ll change it back.

Post-contract Revision Process

Sis-in-law, Elephant Cafe, Edinburgh

When Julie Matysic at Sky Pony Press acquired the manuscript, she sent her editorial comments to me in a Word document. I had the chance to approve, change or comment on the suggested changes. Most of the revision was copy edits and most of the time I couldn’t believe I’d let such a glaring grammatical error slip through.

But one set of edits I disagreed with. I had capitalized the names of all the characters in the two plays that are performed in the book. The copy editor kept all the proper names—Juliet, Romeo, Cinderella— as I wrote them, but changed all the animal characters—the cat, horse, mice—to lower case.

I decided to email Julie to ask if I could change them back. She said yes, and suggested that since many of the parts were names that would not normally be capitalized, I make up a list of all the characters for the copy editor to work with. I’m so glad I asked for clarification.

Remember that you and your editor are working toward the same goal: to make your manuscript great. And you know she has impeccable taste: she picked your manuscript to publish.

Post-contract Bonus

Julie suggested I do a mood board for the cover. I’d never heard of this but she explained that all I had to do was open a PowerPoint file and create a collage using the covers of books that I like then include a second page with a written explanation of why I had chosen the images. It might be the font, the color, the mood or a combination of all three. When it was done, she would send the collage to the artist creating the design to use for inspiration.

It was so much fun to search through online bookstores to find covers I liked. Beth, my 12-year-old heroine, is threatened with losing the children’s theater she has been performing in for years, but I didn’t want the cover to be sad.

I wanted it to be a reminder of what Beth loves about theater, about being on stage and what she will lose if her theater closes.

The mood I wanted was joy, the joy of acting, of being onstage. The covers that showed images of flying, fairies, a figure with fantastically long fingers, captured the unlimited world the stage offers.

Because so much of the story takes place in a theater, I was drawn to covers that featured theater curtains opening. Three of the twelve covers I chose had a frame of red theater curtains and two others repeated that shape and color in the clothing of the women depicted: a partially open red coat, billowing red bell bottoms. That rich red set the color pallet that dominated my collage.

When Julie sent me the final cover, I opened the attachment with some trepidation. Up popped a design with a frame of rich red curtains opening onto a dark background that showcased the title of the book. And my name was in lights, just like on a Broadway marquee.

I loved my cover. And the Children’s Books manager at Keplers, my local independent bookstore, told me the cover was so effective, the book was jumping off the shelves. My mood board had worked.



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?

Shakespeare puppets & stamp for JoAnne’s signing

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it was devoting 2016, the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to celebrating him and his work, I knew I had a great tie-in with Playing Juliet.

When I was in Stratford-upon-Avon last summer, I took a lot of pictures of the buildings that were standing when Shakespeare lived there to use on my web site and in my talks.

I also bought three Shakespeare puppets: a regular hand-puppet for most of my presentations, an elegant figure in a cloth-of-gold costume to use with a sophisticated audience and a finger puppet, because sometimes a smaller figure will just work better.

When I got home, I ordered a Shakespeare stamp to use at my book signings. After all, the Bard wrote all of my epigraphs.

I’ve struggled to get my web pages up. I have now checked off a web page for myself, with all of my books on it, and a web page for Playing Juliet with links to 13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know as well as links to photos of Shakespearian sites at Stratford-upon-Avon.

I’ve got an author’s page on Amazon and Goodreads and SCBWI. I did a Launch Page on the new SCBWI web program. This all took a very long time.

Author/illustrator guest book, New York Public Library

Kepler’s Bookstore, has been a great help. They invited me to have my book launch party there, which, on their advice, was held a week after the pub date because every now and then, books are delayed. The copies of Playing Juliet arrived on time but I was happy to have the extra week to prepare for the talk.

Kepler’s is still supporting me. Want a signed or inscribed copy of my book? Just order it online from them.

I worked with my publicist at Sky Pony Press to have her send copies of the books to the winner of the giveaways I ran on Goodreads and to my alumni connections.

This resulted in a featured review, with a color picture of the cover of the book, in the ASU magazine, which is sent to 340,000 people.

So far I’ve spoken at an event at our local library, at my grandsons’ school in Ghana, and sold copies at our regional SCBWI conference. I’ll be talking at other schools in the fall. When I was in New York City recently, I introduced myself to the librarians at the Children’s Room at the New York Public Library, and was invited to sign the guest book they keep for visiting authors and illustrators.

And online I’ve been invited to do an interview on Library Lions and Cynsations.

I’ve been enjoying the process, but it takes a lot of time and I’m impatient to dive into my next middle grade.

the Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana

What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Start early. Well before your pub date, get your author’s pages up on SCBWI, Amazon and Goodreads. Figure out how the book giveaways on Goodreads work, and think about posting one before your book is out. Don’t wait until your book comes out to publicize any good news about it.

Jane Yolen wrote the most incredible blurb for Playing Juliet, saying “I couldn’t stop reading,” but I waited until the book came out to share it with everyone. I’m not making that mistake again.

My next book, My First Day at Mermaid School, is a picture book that will be coming out from Knopf in the summer of 2018 and Julianna Swaney is bringing her amazing talent to the illustrations.

Cynsational Notes

Waylon, writer cat

JoAnne’s other publications include:

  • Onstage/Backstage, with Caryn Huberman (Carolrhoda, 1987); 
  • The Christmas Box (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); 
  • and My First Day at Mermaid School, illustrated by Julianna Swaney, (Alfred A. Knopf, Summer, 2018).

In Playing Juliet, Beth continually quotes the web page, “13
Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know,” which can be found on www.playingjuliet.com.
This site also includes photos of Shakespearian sites in
Stratford-upon-Avon (see below). 

Cynsational Gallery

View more research photos from JoAnne.

Shakespeare’s Childhood Home
Shakespeare’s Childhood Bedroom

New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.


Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

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?

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West

After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn’t occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn’t explicitly request an R&R.

I’m so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace – such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It’s so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It’s actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you’re a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you’ll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

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

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life – the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating ‘coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn’t?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn’t met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she’s off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah “lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com.”

New Voice: Melanie Conklin on Counting Thyme

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Conklin is the first-time author of
Counting Thyme (Putnam, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. 

The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.


After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. 

All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

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

I’m a serious student of revision techniques. Because of my background as a product designer, I’m a very visual thinker, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach revision because there are always new challenges to encounter!

Prior to going through the editorial process with Counting Thyme, I had figured out a few things about revision: first, that I thought better on paper. I printed out my manuscript and used different colored post-it flags to track different elements through the document, so that I could find them and also so I could see their distribution and revise to where needed. I had also learned to make an outline of my manuscript before revising, so that I could “see” the whole thing at once.

After I survived the gauntlet of revision-under-deadline, my process had changed in small but significant ways. My editor also works on paper, so I learned to take her pages, punch holes in them, and put them in a binder. This may seem like common sense, but it seriously hadn’t occurred to me to make it easier to flip through the book!

I also learned to note the changes I was confident about directly on the manuscript, and to use full-sized Post-its to write every single guess, question, and thought to myself about anything I hadn’t figured out yet.

Basically, I would distill my editor’s letter, then read through my manuscript while noting any possible solutions on hundreds of Post-its.

Why Post-its? Well, I stick them on the bottom edge of the paper so that they hang off the edge of the manuscript pages, which makes it easy to find the notes again, whereas notes on the paper can get lost.

My outlines evolved, too. Now I outline on note cards, one for each scene, and pin them to a tri-fold board (the greatest invention ever). I generally organize the cards into three acts that form a road map for the manuscript. Again, this makes it easier to visualize the book and its major elements as I work through the planning pass for a revision.

Usually, by the time I’ve read all the way through my manuscript, the best solutions have risen to the surface, and I’ve answered all of my Post-it questions, leaving a bunch of notes ready and waiting. Then it’s just a matter of opening the Word doc and making the actual changes!

Doing a planning pass on the manuscript does add time to your revision, but I’ve found that it saves time overall because you have the freedom to think, explore, and choose, so when you open your Word doc you are full of confidence and can work more quickly.

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?

Obviously, I’m super into the creative process, which applies not just to the act of revision, but to writing in general. I studied English Literature back in college, but it did not occur to me to write books myself until I had quit my job to stay home with my young children for the time being.

I found writing offered the same creative outlet that I’d savored in design, and in many ways my writing process have evolved to mirror my design process.

In product design, the end goal is to get one product on the shelf. To get there, you may throw away hundreds of ideas. But remember, the end goal is one success. I think that mindset has made my approach to writing more flexible, especially when I’m developing a new character or voice.

When I first think of a character, I really explore them. I keep a notebook for each book idea, and in that notebook I let my thoughts run wild. I blab for pages about backstory, then change my mind and cross it out. I turn to a new page and draw the character’s house. I write about their family. About where they live and the hurts they carry. What has changed in their life? What wound keeps them from moving forward? What lesson do they need to learn? How must they grow?

Often, I write the opening chapter of a book quite early in the process, but then I always pause and take this time to expand my ideas before I decide anything. Doing this can help you avoid making boring choices. Generally, the very first idea you have may not be the most original idea possible, depending on how much time you spend brainstorming.

To generate more interesting and original ideas, I like to use lateral thinking techniques—in a nutshell, it’s the idea of picking seemingly disparate ideas and pairing them to gain a new perspective.

For example, you might flip through the dictionary (or any book) and randomly pick a word like “apple.” Then you ask yourself, how is my character like an apple? Are they shiny on the outside, but rotten at the core? Have they weathered storms and survived? Maybe they see the world in slices and are trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the full picture. In this way, introducing a new connection point can lead to some very creative character development.

But the bottom line for me is to trust your writing process. Develop your routines. Nurture your mind by reading widely. Try new techniques, and gather them as your arsenal against deadlines.

Too often, we are rushed and panicking, but cutting corners usually just leads to a big old meltdown.

In my experience, your process will get you there every time—even if that involves writing with a cabbage leaf on your head, which I have done.

Writing is that hard, I know. But if you trust your process, the answers will come.

Cynsational Notes

 See more insights from Melanie on:

“Read nonfiction. Seriously, the weirdest stuff happens in the real world. Sometimes it’s super helpful to step away from your fictional world and flip through a non-fiction book (or watch an hour of NatGeo. Did you know that a blue whale’s heart weighs a thousand pounds?).”

Guest Post: Tamara Ellis Smith on Another Kind of Hurricane

By Tamara Ellis Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Space. Not up, as in the final frontier, but between, as in the distance between you and me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of space lately, and I’ve been especially curious about what can happen inside of it. What I’ve come to believe is that anything can happen—and everything.

I learned this through the process of writing my debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane (Schwartz & Wade.) And I am hoping to nurture this through the Another Kind of Hurricane Project, a community service/creative connection project I am offering schools, classrooms, teachers and students.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane

“Who will get my pair of pants?” my four-year-old son, Luc, asked me.

It was late August 2005, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, and we were dropping off food and clothing at our local police barracks.

Luc’s question was a good one. A great one, actually.

It is just under one thousand six hundred miles from where we live in Vermont to New Orleans. That’s a lot of space. But at the other side there was a four-year-old kid who would soon be wearing Luc’s green pants with the moose on them.

Lucaiah’s question connected the two boys. His question—his curiosity about this other kid—made that space become vibrant and alive; filled it with potential…for interaction, for transformation, for growth.

Who will get my pair of pants?

With Isaiah and the marbles he made at a workshop in New Orleans

I couldn’t get the question out of my head. So I stumbled my way through the process of learning how to write a novel, this novel – a story that became about a ten-year-old boy named Henry, who lives in Vermont and whose friend dies in a mountain accident, and another ten-year-old boy named Zavion, who lives in New Orleans, and whose house is destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the strange, almost magical, way their lives become entwined.

I kind of frantically wrote the novel. Hurricane-style. Fast and furious – ideas whipping around me like wind; words pouring down onto the page in buckets.

I finally finished what I thought was the final draft of Another Kind of Hurricane in 2007. I found my agent in 2008. We sent the novel out that fall, and by the end of 2009…

I had a lot of rejections. I was, I’m going to say it, flooded with them. Something was missing from the story.

In August 2011, almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont.

Hard.

It literally hit the block I live on. The river we live right by flooded its banks and water poured onto our street from two sides. Water reached the stop sign at the entrance to the block. Sheep and pigs from the farm at the other end of the block had to be rescued in kayaks. Our houses flooded. The basement of my house flooded, destroying our water heater and a pellet stove. We lost our kids’ artwork, bins of clothing, and some of my manuscript among other things.

We were extremely lucky—no one was hurt. And I know that what we experienced was only the smallest fraction of what folks went through in New Orleans. But still, living through Irene touched me deeply. But not only in the ways you might expect.

At one point during the process of hauling stuff from our basement, someone gave me a box. I was standing by the dumpster deciding what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. (Most everything had to be thrown away.)

I opened the box. It was filled with photographs. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these, I’m talking about 35mm, developed film, no saving them on your phone, no posting them on Facebook! A picture of my siblings and me at my wedding, a picture of my sister the first time she made Luc laugh, a picture of a camping trip with friends. The photos were soaking wet and covered in mud. I knew there were dozens of similar boxes, still in the basement. I knew I had to throw them all away. But I couldn’t do it. Not yet. So I went back to filling the dumpster. Hours later, as the sun was setting, I took a break and walked to the lawn at the side of my house.

What I saw took my breath away.

People I didn’t know—were saving all of my photos. Someone meticulously peeled them apart, someone rinsed them in a shallow bin of water, and someone hung them on a clothesline to dry.

It was one of those moments that shines a light. Instead of quickly chucking that box of photos, I had accidentally left a space for these people. They became like Lucaiah, my son, asking a question:

What should we do with these photographs? And I became the kid who got the moose pants. Without realizing it, I had allowed there to be that vibrant, full-of-potential space. A space, it turns out, spanning those amazing people and me.

And inside of that space, those people and I—we were forever changed; we became friends.

And all of a sudden I knew. This was the something missing from my novel. Space.

One thousand six hundred miles between Vermont and New Orleans. A space just as far and, it turns out, just as close as between those people and me.

Irene had soaked me with a giant reminder about the power of that kind of space. It’s a little like the eye of a hurricane, perhaps. That lull in the middle of the storm. But not really. It’s less like an eye and more like a heart. A place that quietly beats with life. Or two hearts, really. The magic of space, for me, is the landscape—or maybe people-scape—where the alchemy of one person connecting with another unfolds.

And now I had to create that – and trust that – as I headed into yet another draft of Another Kind of Hurricane.

Jeanette Winterson said in her book of short stories: In the space between chaos and shape, there was another chance.

After my experience with Irene, I revised my novel more slowly. I took that one thousand six hundred mile journey step by step. Page by page. Person by person.

What did that look like in my life? I spent less time furiously writing and more time watching, walking, talking with people. I was more curious and vulnerable, braver about hanging out with not knowing, braver about letting whatever knowing might come, come organically. It looked like sitting at my friend’s kitchen table drinking coffee and telling Henry and Zavion’s story. It looked like running on the river trail with my dog before the sun came up not thinking about Henry and Zavion at all. It looked like honoring that vibrant and alive space.

Sometimes it wasn’t easy – just ask my friends how fun I was to be with sometimes!—but it faithfully continued, like that photograph saving experience, to take my breath away. And to offer epiphanies and spark creativity and teach me what I believe in.

What did that look like in my novel? I cut a lot of words. I am what my editor would call an emotional maximalist! I know, this might be shocking to you. She’s an emotional minimalist, by the way, so we’re a good team! This left more room for my readers to bring their own experiences and ideas to the story.

It looked like rearranging the timeline of the story, allowing Henry and Zavion to make wrong choices and take missteps. It looked like Henry being an animal fact fanatic, allowing him to feel something other than guilt, and Zavion finally remembering breaking his mother’s coffee cup because of a sensory trigger, the bell-sound of a bracelet. It looked like these two very different boys from two very different places almost meeting, and then meeting. And creating comfort and hope and even healing there.

It isn’t always easy for them either, but in that space they are brave enough to be open to, they find reflections of themselves. They find connection. They find friendship.

They find another chance in Another Kind of Hurricane.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane Project

It is my deep desire to create this kind of space for kids across the country to nurture their own connections, friendships and chances.

Tamara’s sons: Jafeth (age 4) and Lucaiah (age 14)

The Another Kind of Hurricane (AKOH) Project (created with Kirsten Cappy and Curious City) empowers classrooms to reach out to schools in need. In Another Kind of Hurricane (Random House), two boys from opposite ends of the country make a connection through a pair of donated blue jeans—a pair of jeans with a marble in the pocket.

The AKOH Project encourages classrooms and schools to identify a school in need, hold a blue jean drive and slip letters and items into the pockets of those jeans. We know that reading fiction builds empathy, and we know that children can feel powerless when disaster strikes in other parts of the world. The AKOH Project hopes to turn empathy into the power to build connections between communities.

Cynsational Notes

Tamara Ellis Smith writes middle grade fiction and picture books. She graduated in 2007 from Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Tam’s debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was released by Schwartz & Wade/Random House in July 2015. She is represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

New Voice: Melissa Gorzelanczyk on Arrows

On Twitter? Follow @MelissaGorzela.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Gorzelanczyk is the first-time author of Arrows (Delacorte, 2016). From the promotional copy:

People don’t understand love.


If they did, they’d get why dance prodigy Karma Clark just can’t say goodbye to her boyfriend, Danny. 

No matter what he says or does or how he hurts her, she can’t stay angry with him . . . and can’t stop loving him. But there’s a reason why Karma is helpless to break things off: she’s been shot with a love arrow.


Aaryn, son of Cupid, was supposed to shoot both Karma and Danny but found out too late that the other arrow in his pack was useless. 

And with that, Karma’s life changed forever. One pregnancy confirmed. One ballet scholarship lost. And dream after dream tossed to the wind.


A clueless Karma doesn’t know that her toxic relationship is Aaryn’s fault . . . but he’s going to get a chance to make things right. He’s here to convince Danny to man up and be there for Karma.


But what if this god from Mount Olympus finds himself falling in love with a beautiful dancer from Wisconsin who can never love him in return?

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?

Like Melissa on Facebook.

Revising post-contract is a lot different than pre-contract.

The best part about post-contract revision is you have a clear path set by someone you (hopefully) trust. Your editor!

When my edit letters come in, I like to allow the feedback sit for a day or two before diving into the changes. That feels long enough to let any emotions attached to what she is telling me disappear.

 I wouldn’t recommend writing from a place of feeling wounded or defensive. You need to be open.

Once I’m open to the critique, I go through her letter and write a list of all the problems in my manuscript.

After that, I brainstorm possible solutions, making sure my favorites work on a big picture level. The process breaks down to finding solutions within all of my story elements—plot, setting, character, theme—and then onto chapter/scene/sentence level from there.

One thing to remember when revising post-contract is that your book will actually be out in the world someday. While this seems obvious, it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on the work at hand. Mainly, you want your editor to continue liking your book, right? Do not forget that now, in revision, you should also fix the things that don’t ring true to who you are.

Because people are (for reals) going to be reading your book in the near future! Make sure you feel proud and certain about the changes you are making.

Pre-contract is much harder, especially if you don’t have a critique partner you trust. The key is to find at least one.

Trade samples of each other’s work, and see if you like what the other person is saying to help make your story better. See if they work on the same turnaround as you. See if you feel comfortable being yourself when you email back and forth.

Melissa’s office

My second piece of advice is to trust your story and your gut. Long ago, a valued beta reader of mine suggested that I consider taking the teen pregnancy aspect out of my YA novel Arrows. I decided not to, and that ended up helping my book sell to Delacorte. In fact, my book was pitched as “MTVs ‘Teen Mom’ meets Greek mythology.”

I’m not saying the beta reader was wrong. Maybe my book would sell a million more copies without the teen pregnancy plotline. Who knows. I’m just saying you don’t have to revise according to every comment, especially pre-contract.

Before sending your manuscript to beta readers, I suggest doing at least a couple revisions on your own. One of my favorite revising methods is a modified version of Susan Dennard’s revision method (just scroll down). Take her ideas and adapt them to fit your style.

For me, a simplified approach works best. My plan always starts with printing my manuscript and reading it in one sitting. I might make notes in the margins, or I might not. Then, like Dennard, I paperclip my chapters together and figure out what is or isn’t working with the plot, characters and setting.

This takes time! And this isn’t the place for line edits! Because believe me, for those first revision passes, your deleted scenes file may end up as long as your manuscript. That is okay.

Shed no tears.

This is how all books are made.

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
Ernest Hemingway

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?

Promoting my debut has been both exhausting and interesting. I’m still a few weeks from publication date (I’m writing this on 1/4/16), but I truly feel I’ve done all I can leading up to this point.

I try to remember that promoting a book is a slow burn, kind of like the publishing process as a whole. It doesn’t happen all at once.

The things I’m doing pre-publication are the things I’ll be doing all of next year.

Promotion starts by figuring out two things:

1. How much time you can devote to promotion.

2. How much money you can/want to spend.

I think every author should plan to spend some time and some money on their promotion, but no one really knows the magic combo. Personally, I devote half of my work day to promotion, as well as some nights and weekends, which I started doing when my book was about four months from publication.

Up to that point, I was working on promotion as things came up. There wasn’t a set schedule or plan. So I guess you could say that about four months to publication, I panicked, created a master spreadsheet and worked really hard to meet my goals.

As far as money, my guess is that I’ll have spent about $1,500 to $3,000 on promotion by the end of 2016. This estimate includes postage (budget more than you think you need), thank you cards, thank you gifts, bookmarks, buttons, postcards, my book trailer, conferences and my launch party. All of this is tax deductible.

I have no idea if this is high or low as far as a marketing investment, but as a debut, when deciding where to spend money, it made sense to go “all in.”

I’m curious how I’ll feel at the end of 2016. My advice is do what feels right for you.

Melissa’s office

If you’re wondering where to start with promotion, I’d highly recommend joining a debut author group. I’m a member of the Sweet Sixteens and the Class of 2k16.

Being able to ask fellow debuts questions has saved so much time in random Google searches/panicking. Plus it’s a safe place to share failures and successes, and well, meet people who “get it.” My author family is a whole new awesome kind of family.

Another thing you can do is study what successful authors are doing. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Add your personality and style to their ideas. For instance, if they are on Goodreads, you probably want to be there, too. If they are doing giveaways on Twitter, why not try one?

For your own sanity, stay organized. Write all of your ideas on a spreadsheet and add deadline dates so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed.

Work on your promotion in bite-sized pieces. One blog post at a time. One bookmark order at a time. One Tweet at a time.

In my opinion, being a debut is a good time to say “yes”. Try all the blog articles you can. Answer every interview you can.

Yes, you want to make a book trailer? Figure out how to do that. Yes, create a professional website and blog, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. Yes, send a monthly newsletter (I use MailChimp). 

Yes, you can do this!


Cynsational Notes

Melissa recommends: Ten Things Nobody Tells You about Being a Debut Novelist by Tim Federle.

https://thesweetsixteens.wordpress.com/

New Voice: Christine Hayes on Mothman’s Curse

Mothman Selfie Sheet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christine Hayes is the first-time author of Mothman’s Curse, illustrated by James K. Hindle (Roaring Brook, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Josie may live in the most haunted town in America, but the only strange thing she ever sees is the parade of oddball customers that comes through her family’s auction house each week. 

But when she and her brothers discover a Polaroid camera that prints pictures of the ghost of local recluse John Goodrich, they are drawn into a mystery dating back over a hundred years. 

A desperate spirit, cursed jewelry, natural disasters, and the horrible specter of Mothman all weave in and out of the puzzle that Josie must solve to break the curse and save her own life.

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

I so envy writers who are able to follow a set routine. That would be the ideal. I’d love to be more productive, more disciplined! But the truth is, while I try to spend time every day writing or revising, I often end up staring at the computer screen, reworking the same passage over and over, or finding jobs to do around the house that could easily wait.

If I go several days without any forward writing progress—and to me that can include blogging or marketing efforts—then I become anxious and unsettled.

Christine’s work space

I find I have to set small, measurable goals and break big projects up into bite-size pieces to fool myself into not feeling overwhelmed. I’ll mark a deadline on the calendar, then work backward to determine how much I have to get done each day. Even imaginary deadlines can be valuable motivators!

Then I try to follow through in unconventional ways, mixing up my routine from day to day. I’ll work a few days at home at the kitchen table, another day sitting in the car at the park, another at a local café. On a few occasions when I was facing critical deadlines, I checked into a hotel to sharpen my focus and cut down on distractions.

For first drafts, I get the most done with a notebook and pen, writing things out by hand. Later, as I type what I’ve written, I’m able to self-edit, adding or cutting as needed. It’s an effective way to shape the story early on.

For the next round of revisions I often print out a chapter at a time and use a red pen to mark it up. Sometimes there are only a few usable sentences left per page once the ink dries. It’s tough to watch the word count shrink, but satisfying to see those few sentences that are able to withstand a more intense level of scrutiny.

As far as making a manuscript competitive—polished, professional—I think it’s a dichotomy. You can’t compare your work to others, because you will always feel like you fall short.

Christine’s pottery collection

I love the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I see this with my kids all the time. If I were to give them each a cupcake, they’d be happy for a minute or two, but they would inevitably notice that a sibling has more frosting or less frosting or a better color of frosting or whatever. As adults, we never quite grow out of this.

At the same time, you should be reading every day—books both in and out of your genre, news articles, magazines, something. Not to compare, but to fill your mind with words of all kinds, drinking in what’s beautifully done, learning lessons from work that’s perhaps less polished, clichéd, poorly paced, etc.

Set a high standard for yourself. Maybe six months ago you wrote something and said, “This is my best work.” But then you write something new and when you revisit your earlier work you realize that you’ve grown as a writer. It’s a beautiful and amazing process.

I struggle with procrastination and self-doubt. I also tend to overthink, to tinker with passages too much, but at some point I have to stop fussing and just let go. The gauge for me is feeling like it’s the best I can produce in that moment in time, until my agent or editor gently points out the many ways a piece can be improved!

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?

I’ve been fascinated with the paranormal since grade school. As a young teen, I would check out stacks of ghost story anthologies from the library. I had mostly given up on kids’ novels at that point. I found it so disappointing when I would choose a book that seemed like it was about a ghostly mystery, only to discover that the “ghost” was a fake, dreamed up by the bad guy to hide some evil plot. I craved books that celebrated the unexplained.

One book I do remember falling in love with was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (FSG, 1963). Though not precisely a paranormal story, it was full of wonder and possibility.

I had the same teacher, Mrs. Tapscott, for both fourth and fifth grades. She read to us every day, and one of the books she read was A Wrinkle in Time. She had this sweet southern voice, and she had no patience for kids who thought they were too cool to listen during reading time.

She also read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1937), The Cay by Theodore Taylor (Avon, 1969), and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (Dutton, 1959). She was an incredible lady.

I also remember seeing commercials for a series of Time Life books called Mysteries of the Unknown. I wanted so badly to own every volume. A few years ago I found one at a garage sale for a dollar. Of course I snapped it right up! Isn’t it funny, the things we carry with us from childhood?

Outside of books, one specific influence that stands out in my memory is the show “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy in the late 70s/early 80s. Each week they would explore an aspect of the unexplained: the Bermuda Triangle, aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster. I ate it up.

Then, of course, were the slumber parties where we watched movies like “Psycho” and “The Lady in White.” It was delicious, that shared feeling of fear: hiding behind our pillows, imagining footsteps outside the window—because in fact we were perfectly safe. We were seeing new facets of the world, exploring what it meant to be brave.

I think spooky books are appealing because they offer adventure, escape—a vicarious experience in a parallel world. They allow kids to view fear through a lens that hopefully makes their real-world problems a little less scary, a little easier to face.

These days I love “M Night Shyamalan” movies and the show “Supernatural.” I even watch the occasional episode of “Ghost Hunters.” My husband teases me about my “creepy side.” But I’ve never enjoyed slasher movies or anything gory, especially zombies. They give me nightmares!

It’s probably why I write middle grade. I love a good scare, but nothing graphic. I think what you don’t show can be even scarier than spelling out the grisly details. The movie “The Village” comes to mind here. It wasn’t well-received by critics, but it created an almost tangible atmosphere on the screen. It had gorgeous, enticing cinematography, a washed-out color palette with hints of red (“the bad color”), and an epic soundtrack. I thought it was beautifully done.

I’m also fascinated by old things and abandoned places. Every broken-down barn or rusting piece of junk tells a story. You can almost feel the history there as you imagine the ghosts that might be lingering. It’s my go-to source for inspiration.

New Voice: Cindy L. Rodriguez on When Reason Breaks

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cindy L. Rodriguez is the first-time author of When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury, 2015). From the promotional copy:

A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. 

Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. 

Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.


In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.

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?

Writing with assistant Ozzie

My manuscript went through tons of pre-contract revisions. I first revised based on my agent’s feedback prior to going on submission to editors. The rejections with notes were helpful because we saw trends and knew those aspects needed to be fixed.

Around the same time, the editor who would eventually buy my novel wanted revisions before she’d take it to her team. She sent general notes and line-edited the first 40 pages, so I could really understand both the global and line-level changes she wanted.

These included scaling back the adult character, Ms. Diaz, further developing some of the secondary characters, and working on making the two main teen characters distinct and the diary entries and letters indistinct, meaning they had to read as if they could have been written by either girl.

This version was the one that ended with a contract.

But, as we all know, revising doesn’t end there. After the contract, I received a four-page, business-style editorial letter with further revisions needed.

This part of the process involved some back-and-forth through emails, and the draft traveled between me and my editor a few times—to get certain scenes just right—before it was approved for the next step, which was copy editing.

Throughout all this, I sometimes felt frustrated—I’m not going to lie—because it’s a long, emotionally draining process.

So, when the manuscript was sent back again and again with more notes, I’d sometimes wonder if I’d ever get it right.

In hindsight, though, all of the changes my editor requested were spot on and helped to shape the story into its best possible version. Nothing she proposed didn’t sit right with me.

Some authors have had the opposite experience, so I was lucky that way.

I’ve learned that revision is a hugely important and necessary part of the process, so my advice to other writers is to listen, be open to the suggestions, and be willing to make major changes if it means creating a better story.

near the Emily Dickinson House/Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts

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

What about being a teacher hasn’t been a blessing?

My students have influenced me in countless ways as both a person and writer. In general, though, being a teacher means I have direct access to today’s young people. I get to see how they dress and talk and what they talk about. I witness teen life first hand instead of having to eavesdrop on conversations at the mall or watch countless YouTube videos.

Some things haven’t changed since my teen years, like the emotions and confusion that are part of coming of age, but of course, many things have changed. I’m lucky that I get to interact with young people every day and learn about their lives.

They often say something, and I tell them, “That’s going to end up in a book one day.”

They just laugh and tell me I’d better spell their name right!

Cynsational Screening Room

New Voice: Trina St. Jean on Blank

Read an excerpt.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Trina St. Jean is the first-time author of Blank (Orca, 2015). From the promotional copy:

All Jessica knows is what the Man and Woman in the hospital room tell her:


She’s fifteen.


Thanks to a bison bull in a rage one Very Bad Day on the family ranch, she was in a coma for weeks.


The Man and Woman are her parents.


The rest of her life is a long blank that her damaged mind refuses to fill in for her. The doctors say that brain injury is to blame for the explosive temper she can’t control. What scares her most is the coldness she feels towards though she’s supposed to care about, including the Girl staring back at her from the mirror.


When the doctors say they can’t do anything more for her, it’s time for her to go home and rebuild her shattered life. But no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessica that everyone misses so much. And the memories of who she used to be, and what exactly happened on that Very Bad Day, stay stubbornly hidden in the shadows of her mind. Everything she does ends in disaster: returning to school, trying to reconnect with friends, struggling to fit into a world where she no longer belongs.


Just when Jessica is losing hope that things will ever be normal, a new friend offers an alternative to staying in her old life. 

Jessica must confront the reality of what it means to truly leave the past behind.

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?

Before I describe the long (years!) process of revision I went through with my YA novel Blank, I should tell you a little about the approach I took when writing it.

One word sumps it up: random.

Really, really, as-random-as-you-can-get random.

Essentially, I wrote little snippets of scenes, in no particular order, whenever they came to me, with no thought to plot development or story arcs or any kind of structure.

A few years later, when I had hundreds of pages of these snapshots, I entered into an exhausting, extended wrestling match in which I tried to force those scenes into some kind of logical order.

During this wrestling match, which I often felt I was losing, I berated myself: why, why, why had I done this to myself? Once I had it in an order that made sense, I spent another stretch of years trying to make the prose tighter, develop characters more fully and tweak subplots.

I should mention, though, that there were many distractions during this process. Specifically, two cute little distractions with diapers and chubby cheeks.

Some strategies I used for revision had me feeling a bit like Russell Crowe’s character in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” One spring break from my day teaching job, I sent my daughters (now well out of diapers) to visit Grandma and Grandpa’s farm and I covered the living room wall in sticky notes representing scenes, playing around with the plot. I created giant mind maps using a wonderful free program, called MindNode, to visualize the connections between themes and characters and symbols. I’m also a huge fan of Scrivener, a writing software made for Macs with a nice cork board you can move scene cards around on.

Once I had the novel structure down, I hid myself away in my bedroom, door locked, and read the manuscript aloud and recorded myself. Then I hid away again and played it back, pausing and replaying and fixing more things. On the next round, I printed the manuscript off in a different font to trick my mind into seeing it with “fresh” eyes and read through it again, and then again.

All of these things eventually got me to the place where I felt Blank was the best I could make it.

As long and arduous as revision was, I learned a lot about writing, about structure, about polishing and cutting and getting to the heart of a character. And maybe the biggest lesson of all: For my next novel, I will avoid the random approach to novel writing, taking the time to think at least a little about the “big picture.” Hopefully this will shave a few years off the process.

Once the novel was accepted, I used my editor’s comments to do one overall revision, with some plot changes and enhancement to character motivation, then several revisions for smaller details like language choice and dealing with inconsistencies.

I remember the moment on my final go through, while gazing out at the water on vacation on a houseboat, when it hit me that people were actually going to read this thing I had been obsessing over all these years (or hopefully, at least).

Photo of Trina by Eileen Abad

Panic set in. I think I could have gone on editing forever, but luckily, I had a deadline to put a stop to my fanaticism.

How did I feel during the stages of revision?

There were times when I was extremely frustrated, especially when nailing down the plot. I am an indecisive person – I can change my mind several times just picking yogurt at the grocery store – so the limitless number of choices when writing can be overwhelming.

I went for long, brooding walks. I talked to myself. I scribbled endless notes on scraps of paper, and talked through ideas with my husband and my daughters.

During other parts of editing, I felt more exhilarated, especially when polishing the language. There were fewer decisions to make, but it was easy to see the immediate result of changes.

Overall, the journey of novel revision was challenging beyond anything I could have imagined but also extremely rewarding and satisfying. I survived the wrestling match, and developed some muscles and better techniques that should help me now that I am back in the ring working on book number two.

I’ve recently created a new home office space for myself, with folding screens that I am using as giant bulletin boards for my mind maps and sticky notes.

Trina’s writing space

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

When I started Blank, there was no such thing as texting. Cell phones were around, of course, but they were more of a tool for working adults rather than a teen must-have/extension of self, and social media was only just beginning to pop up.

Jessie, the main character, struggles desperately to put together the puzzle of who she was before a brain injury and memory loss. In my first draft, she studied photo albums, read her old journal and checked her email from time to time in search of clues of her past.

During revision process, I knew I had to add texting and social media and all the other ways a teenager now would go about tracing her past and reconnecting with her life. Including the technology ended up bringing some fun and meaningful elements to the story, too, which was a nice surprise.

Without the changes, for example, I wouldn’t have created The Hedgegod, a wise creature Jessie follows on Twitter who dispels quills and inspiring quotes. He’s based on my daughters’ real pet hedgehog, Velcro, who we all think is pretty wise himself.

Velcro

In the very near future, I know facebook might be passé (some argue it already is) and teens will be onto something completely different. Having it play a key role in Blank may date the novel, but it’s so prevalent it couldn’t be ignored.

Even further down the road, when my grandchildren read Blank, it’ll seem completely old-fashioned. Texting? What’s that? By then, teens might have implanted devices that allow them to share even a smell or thought with others.

Cynsational Notes

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