Guest Post & Giveaway: Jennifer Wolf Kam on Words from the Past

Meeting young writers at The Voracious Reader.

By Jennifer Wolf Kam
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In the spring of 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia completed a successful orbital mission around the Earth, my hometown New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup and eight-year-old me wrote my first fan letter. It was not a letter to Shaun Cassidy or Scott Baio, or any other Tiger Beat sensation.

I’d just read The Little Leftover Witch, and my letter was to its author, Florence Laughlin.

Writers were (still are) my rock stars.

After reading this wonderful book I knew I wanted to be a writer. I thought perhaps, I might be a witch, too, but writing seemed more practical—especially since, try as I might, I could not get my room to clean itself just by snapping my fingers and wishing it so.

I can imagine what my letter to Florence Laughlin was like, written in my best penmanship. I likely told her about the construction paper and crayon creations I read to my third grade class. I probably described how I dressed up and performed stories for whomever would listen. I may have declared that, since reading her book, I would be a witch for Halloween. I know I told her I loved to read. I know this because her generous reply began with:

“You are my favorite kind of people! You tell me that you just love to read.”

I swooned.

She described how the idea for the book had come to her twenty years earlier, and that the little witch herself nudged and pestered her to write her story.

The thought of the mischievous little witch pestering Florence Laughlin (like I often pestered my mother) delighted me. But I also heard something else—the story needed to come out. It needed to be written.

I knew that feeling. I carried stories inside of me, too—all asking for a chance to be told. I got to work at once.
In the ensuing years, I wrote whenever I could, and even when I couldn’t.

I studied the craft, attended conferences, joined critique groups, and earned my MFA at the fabulous Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I spent countless hours at my laptop, writing and revising, creating and honing, immersed in worlds of my own creation.

None of my efforts led to a book contract. There were dark moments, soothed by chocolate and loved ones, when the “what ifs” and “never wills” mingled with the stories inside my head. My dream drifted further away, like a little witch, gliding off into the Halloween night on her broomstick.

What I wouldn’t have given for a touch of her magic!

Learn more!

But I kept at it. Just like the little witch’s, my stories wanted to be told and I needed to write them. Slowly, that started to become enough.

Then, an amazing thing happened. My novel, Devin Rhodes Is Dead (Mackinac Island/Charlesbridge, 2014) won the National Association of Elementary School Principals Children’s Book Award, and I received a publishing contract from marvelous Charlesbridge. I do believe the best things happen when we least expect them.

Much time has passed since I was the girl who opened that letter and dreamed of writing books. I want to tell her—that impatient little one in a hurry to dance with words and share her stories—that it won’t be easy. But then, we all have our journey, and this is hers. This is mine.

In the end, we write our own stories. Mine was filled with hard work, determination, stick-to-it-iveness and bucket loads of gratitude.

And I think, a bit of magic, after all.

Kitty and muse, KitKat

Cynsational Screening Room


Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three signed copies of Devon Rhodes Is Dead by Jennifer Wolf Kam (Mackinac Island/Charlesbridge, 2014). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America and the U.K.

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New Voice: Cori McCarthy on The Color of Rain

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

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

A space prostitute to be exact.

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

You might ask why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vermont College of Fine Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

With fellow YA author Amy Rose Capetta

The program completely changed my life overnight.

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

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

I was so appalled by that question.

No one at VCFA told me what to write.

No one told me how to write it.

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

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

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

This proved to be essential in launching my career.

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

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

VCFA Writers: Liz Gallagher on Character = Plot

By Liz Gallagher

As I’m writing this, it’s days before my second novel, My Not-So-Still Life is published. Without the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I don’t think I’d have ever written a book.

The lectures, workshops and—maybe most of all—casual conversations over giant cookies in the cafeteria gave me the opportunity to be obsessed with the craft of writing. I, and my classmates and the faculty, dedicated ourselves to really trying to figure out what makes a good book a good book.

I graduated from VCFA in January of 2006. Five and a half years later, there’s one casual conversation I find myself gravitating toward again and again.

I used to worry that, even though I was pretty good with characters, I’d never be able to finish an actual novel because I was terrible with plot. I had an idea that a plot was this thing conjured up out of thin air, a story where before there was nothing.

I thought plots came to be via magic.

By Alison McGhee (Feiwel, 2009)

Alison McGhee was on faculty, and she said, “Plot is nothing but character.”

Plot is nothing but character. Okay! With just that one small conversation, I realized that if I have a strong character and that character has desires and does something (anything!) other than sit on their bed all day, I have a plot. No hocus pocus required.

I don’t go to Montpelier every six months now, and I don’t get to be surrounded on all sides by people who love talking about craft, but I do have those two years to draw on.

At VCFA I gathered enough inspiration and insight to keep me writing and writing and writing. That’s what I do now.

Making a story come together usually still feels like magic. Except, now, I know how to access that magic. I just have to think back to Vermont.

Cynsational Notes

Liz Gallagher is the author of two YA novels, My Not-So-Still Life (Wendy Lamb Books, 2011) and The Opposite of Invisible (Wendy Lamb Books, 2008).

Both books are set in Seattle, which Liz happily calls her adopted home.

Visit her online or contact her at for questions about this post or Vermont College of Fine Arts.

VCFA Writers: Mandy Robbins Taylor on Voice

Mandy Robbins Taylor

By Mandy Robbins Taylor

A few years ago at a conference, I heard Erin Clarke, a Senior Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, reply to a question regarding voice.

“What is voice?” she ruminated. “Basically, voice is everything.”

Great. So I get to write a one-page blog post on “everything.” No wonder nobody else claimed this topic.

She’s right, though. Voice is everything. Every word on your page is told in your character’s unique voice, or your unique voice if you are writing nonfiction.

In writing, a voice ultimately is the embodiment of a character. Even if you are writing in third person, your narrator is a character.

The YA novel I’m currently working on, in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is written in first person present tense. Choosing this point of view means each word must really and truly belong to my main character. Sure, she and I would say the same thing sometimes. But other times, not so much.

Uma Krishnaswami

While revising, my brilliant and talented VCFA advisor, Uma Krishnaswami has called me out a few times on my voice slipping into my character’s narration. For example, at one point my character describes an “omniscient smile.” In the margin, Uma commented something like “this sounds like you, not her.”

At first I was annoyed. Just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean the writerly word “omniscient” is so uniquely mine. But then I realized she was right—my character is a grieving seventeen year old on summer break, more interested in making varsity softball than writing “A” English papers. Words like “omniscient” are not just going to pop into her head while observing the smiles of people she’s just met.

Lately, Uma has just been oh-so-sweetly highlighting passages in blue when I slip out of voice. I’ve noticed this helps me to connect the dots and see when, where, and why I’m doing it. I enjoy academic writing, and most of my trouble spots simply sound too…fancy.

HarperCollins, 2005

As Fancy Nancy would say, “I’m inexplicably devastated” is a fancy way of saying “I don’t know why I’m so upset.” And it’s me, being a fancy, show-off, critical writer who likes to feel smart–not my girl, processing her emotions in her own mind.

But the good news is, when it comes down to it, after spending eighteen months of my life with her, I do know this girl. I know what she would say, and it isn’t (usually) hard to fix. Sometimes it just takes another pair of eyes and a gentle reminder that I’m way too impressed with myself.

But sometimes you may find you need to spend more time getting to know your character. Try freewriting conversations with her. Have him fill out an email survey. Make a character profile in your novel folder. Pretend to be her when you’re walking to the store, working out, talking to a salesgirl. Just never take a shortcut and assume one way is as good as another. It isn’t.

Voice is everything—and every single word on every single page matters.

Cynsational Notes

Fancy Nancy was written by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser.

Mandy Robbins Taylor will graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts‘s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program in January 2012, though she would truly rather not. Ever.

She loves writing realistic young adult, funny fantasy middle grade, and goofy picture books. She occasionally teaches workshops for teen writers, passing on some of that hard-earned MFA knowledge and staying connected with her audience.

You can find her this October teaching the teen portion of the inter-generational Pacific Coast Childrens Writers Workshop.

Feel free to email her at MandyRobbins7@aol(dot)com with any questions about this post, her writing, or Vermont College of Fine Arts.

See also Romancing Reality in YA Fiction by Mandy Robbins Taylor from Pam Watts at Strong in the Broken Places. Peek: “…in your average, contemporary, realistic YA novel, why do the boys have to be so much better than real life teen boys? What are we telling our girls to expect?”

VCFA Writers: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Creating Likable Characters

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Nobody liked my protagonist.

Well, not nobody. Editors didn’t like her. I had already cut her whining and made her helpful and friendly to her new stepfather in response to a harsh letter from an agent. But those changes didn’t make her any new editor friends.

As I began my second semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I decided to submit my initial chapters to the workshop to figure out why my now non-whiny and extraordinarily helpful teenager still wasn’t deemed “likeable.”

Interestingly, I found my answer not through discussion of my own manuscript, but through the discussion of someone else’s piece.

A mandatory part of VCFA residency is daily attendance at workshop. Residency workshops are round-table critiques of 20 pages of work — among 10 students, at different levels of the program — moderated by two faculty advisors. Each student receives a turn to have 20 pages of their manuscript critiqued by the group, for one-hour. For a writer with a work in progress, it doesn’t get any better than this.

The best thing about the workshops at VCFA is how much you learn by discussing the strengths and questions in each workshop submission — your peers’ as well as your own.

It can be easier to absorb information when your “baby” is not on the block. Or, maybe someone else has achieved the effect you were struggling with and now you learn from that example. This is exactly what happened for me. My fellow workshop members and I grew to care about the angry and physically aggressive 10-year-old girl in another workshop member’s story for the following reasons:

  1. She didn’t whine, and she didn’t feel sorry for herself. (This I’d figured out before.)
  2. Behind her anger there was an emotional vulnerability that allowed readers to engage. My own protagonist saw herself as emotionally self-sufficient, and she was. But that much detachment and independence doesn’t give readers the opportunity to get involved and care. I needed to make her vulnerable.
  3. I learned that when other characters in the piece (characters who do appeal to readers) like and care about my main character, readers like and care about her more as well.

Initially, my novel was structured in such a way that readers didn’t see my main character interact with her friends. In other words, increasing the presence of people who liked her helped readers follow suit. All it took was adding friends who were funny and relatable to teen readers to like my character for her loyalty, sense of humor, and great ideas.

As they say, “Friends are people who know everything about you and like you anyway.”

Don’t hold anything back from your readers, and they just might find that your character feels like a friend.

Cynsational Notes

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is in her second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is the author of an adult novel, Dirt Cheap (Curbstone, 2006)(now back in print), and the award-winning YA/adult crossover Gringolandia (Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2009)(excerpt, trailer, teacher guide).

She also contributes reviews to the online Albany Times-Union, Readergirlz, and The Pirate Tree, a new blog about social justice and children’s literature.

If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact her directly at

VCFA Writers: Peter Patrick Langella on Writing Your Way into a Routine

By Peter Patrick Langella

During my first 10-day residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I kept hearing the word “routine.” I knew they were talking to me. I was disorganized, and I needed to create a routine around my writing. I needed to figure out where and when I produced my best work, and hopefully that would lead to some consistency.

I started with mornings. I told myself that I would write first thing each morning at the kitchen table.

Strike One. Life got in the way.

I then tried late-nights, reverting back to my old college ways.

Strike Two. I’m not really a night person.

Next up were early evenings; a nice block of time before my wife got off work.

Strike Three. I had too much energy. I couldn’t focus most days.

My quest for a routine ended in a strike-out.

But then I realized there are no strike-outs when it comes to writing. There are no right or wrong times and places to write. Coming to terms with this was the solution to the problem.

The routine I found is more of a mindset than a time and place. I’m never going to be someone who writes at 7 a.m. each morning in the breakfast nook, and that’s okay. I’ve gained consistency through the realization that as long as I’m writing each day, it doesn’t matter for me.

A minimum of 1,000 new words per day. That’s my routine. It doesn’t matter if it happens at dawn in my kitchen, or at midnight on the moon, as long as I get to that 1,000. The words can be for my WIP, school essays, random tangents and exercises, or a letter to my grandmother. It doesn’t matter.

Finding my routine was just about figuring out exactly how I work, and now that I have, here’s to the future…

Cynsational Notes

Peter Patrick Langella, a former ice hockey player who happily traded body checks for spell-checks, is in his first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, working toward his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. For questions or comments about his post or the program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, you can reach Peter at