Guest Post: Deborah Halverson on Viewing Narrative Beats as “Revelatory” Beats in MG/YA Fiction

Deborah Halverson

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We work hard to get to know our characters.

Creating bios, interviewing them, giving them personality tests. One discovery tool often overlooked in this great pursuit are the small actions tucked into the narrative beats.

Narrative beats are those little breathers in dialogue, sometimes filled simply with speaking tags like he said, she said. They’re rhythmic beats in conversations.

The actions that fill those beats can be priceless character revelations anytime, but especially in our first chapters, during our first drafting.

Alas, often writers fill those breaths with generic filler action. I see this at play when full manuscripts land on my editing desk.

Perhaps we writers drop in those generic actions because we’re so focused on getting the first scenes in place; perhaps we’re just not seeing those beats for the opportunities they are.

Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!

Regardless of why we do it, when we plug in filler action, we miss out on revelatory moments—“revelatory beats,” I call them—that can help us get to know our characters sooner and with delicious richness.

Our first step in mining these moments is spotting the filler. The filler in this example is looked:

Beth looked at him. “No. I want to go, too.” 

“Looked” doesn’t reveal anything about Beth. First pages full of similarly bland actions won’t help us get to know who she is. Other fillers include stare, glance, gaze, turn (to), smile, frown, and laugh. Synonyms for these actions creep in, too, like grin, snicker, giggle. The word eyes also appears in a lot of narrative beats, and those eyes are usually staring, looking, glancing….

We can turn these precious moments into opportunities to learn about our characters in our early drafting by pledging not to fill the breathers with generic actions, even when we’re speed-drafting to get the story tacked into place.

When we hold ourselves back like that, when we leave a beat demanding to be filled, our characters will step in to fill it.

Our characters will step up; they will do something that reflects who they are and how they’re feeling at that moment. What they decide to do is our revelatory gem.

What might they do? Click-click-click their pens, perhaps, to reveal they’re jumpy. Maybe they’ll pace, revealing they are particularly physical. Maybe they’ll rewash the same mug over and over and over, showing fastidiousness or revealing a tendency to avoid big things that demand their attention. Maybe they’ll pull out a tissue so they can open a doorknob without touching their flesh to the germy knob.

My pal Beth in the above example might do something to indicate how capable or strongly she feels about going, which in turn might prompt me to rework what I thought she’d say after the beat:

“No.” Beth darted ahead of him and blocked the doorway. “You’re not leaving without me.” 

Little actions, happening in the middle of an exchange with another character, reveal things about characters’ personalities, comfort zones, relationships, mood, and more.

Filling your first draftings with this kind of content instead of looking, or glancing, or brushing the hair out of his eye, helps you get to know your character early.

Revelatory beats may even cause us to alter the dialogue we were about to lay down. I didn’t know Beth was so forceful until I saw what she did in the narrative beat.

Are you wondering if you’re denying yourself those early revelations? Check. In your work-in-progress, do a find-and-replace search for each of the words above, no matter how much you’ve written. Tally up all their synonyms, too, to see how many times you choose the same general filler action. How does that number compare to your page count?

Then add all the filler uses together. How does that number compare to your page count? A manuscript I worked on recently used eye 150 times, look 301 times, and glance 16 times. 467 uses of the same general action, although some surely weren’t in the narrative beats. This wasn’t an unusual discovery, and the manuscript was a good one.

As an editor, I perform this search and tally often. I even have a name for it: The Stop Looking Test.

Click image to enlarge

For me, the test is an assessment tool to be applied to a finished manuscript. For you, it’s a tool to help you identify if you should make the first-drafting pledge.

Eventually, revelatory beats will become a subconscious part of your drafting style, so you won’t worry about bogging down your quick-drafting.

Not every narrative beat contains an action, of course. Sometimes that breather contains setting details or exposition. But when it’s time for action, we can make the action something revealing about our character so that we—and readers—will get a feel for the characters’ personalities from the very first pages in the book.

They are small moments, but they can add up to a big overall impression. And we all know how important first impressions can be.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Halverson is the founder of the popular writers’ advice site DearEditor.com and the award-winning author of  Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2011) and Writing New Adult Fiction (Writer’s Digest, 2014), the teen novels Big Mouth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008) and Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009), the picture book Letters to Santa (illustrated by Pauline Siewert, Becker & Mayer, 2012), and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers (Pearson Canada).

She was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books and is now a freelance editor specializing in young adult/middle grade fiction, new adult fiction, and picture books.

Deborah has worked with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for twenty years. She also serves on the advisory board for the U.C. San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program.

Profiles of Persistence: Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson on Committing Long-Term to Children’s Writing

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Part One: The Writer’s Heart

Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”

This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.

Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.

Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.

As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed? 

Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.

The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.

I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.

What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.

Lisa Bierman

Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.

The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline. 

External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.

Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.

Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.

Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.

A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.

Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.

Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.

In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.

In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.

But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.

Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).

I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.

I am so happy that I have never given up or quit writing because I recently signed with Stephanie Hansen at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.

What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business? 

Lisa:

  1. Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
  2. We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
  3. Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.

Jill:

  1. Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
  2. Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
  3. Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.

Meredith:

  1. Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
  2. Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
  3. Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.

E.B. White writes of Charlotte,

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

These relationships are precious.

How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances) 

Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.

Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.

People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.

Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!

Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.

Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.

The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
writing.”

Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.

Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.

When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.

Part Two: Writing Craft


What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills? 

Lisa’s favorite craft books.

Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.

Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.

Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.

I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.

What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?

Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.

When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.

Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.

Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.

Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.

I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.

Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.

Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.

What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?

Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.

You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen

Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.

Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.

We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.

This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.

My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.

Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.

When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”

Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.

Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.

Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”

Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft! 


As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.


Cynsational Breaking News & Notes

Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.

Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. DavisAnne BustardKathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.

Lisa Bierman spent 17 years as a marketing research analyst. Then she had two sons who, thankfully, did not want to hear the same picture books over and over.

Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.

Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.

Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.

She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.

Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.

She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.

Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image-issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy; and Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing Teen Love, Romance, Passion!

Inspirational HS relationship.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The fourth in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick). Spoiler alert.

Let’s talk about teen love, romance, passion!

Which of course means talking about awkwardness, three-dimensionality, and emotional resonance.

My new YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018), is partly a love story about two characters, Louise Wolfe and Joey Kairouz, who first connect as staff members of their high school newspaper.

The story is very loosely inspired by my own lived adolescent experiences. But, big picture, we’re talking straight-up fiction. Romantic fiction, though not genre romance per se.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore genre romance. I spent a year reading more than 300 genre romance novels in large part to study how the authors constructed central plots – middles, especially reversals. Nobody navigates reversals better than a genre romance novelist.

That said, while I’ve written YA novels with strong romantic elements, the main page-turning question isn’t: How will the romantic leads get together?

Sure, that plotline may hook certain readers. But some teens may be more interested in finding out who is behind the harassment of IPOC kids cast in the school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Some may wonder whether the protagonist’s little brother Hughie ever gets his moment in the spotlight. And I suspect many YA readers will be watching how my Native hero navigates daily life in a middle class suburban setting—both Indigenous readers who see themselves (to varying degrees) reflected and non-Indians newly considering that perspective through a first-person lens.

Regardless, my first chapter opens with a romantic conflict and the last chapter ends with an optimistic romantic reconciliation—form-wise, that’s pretty much textbook romance. Except that the protagonist has changed partners for the better.

Granted, early readers have categorized the novel as a “gender empowerment” or “culturally-driven” or even an “important” story. It takes on big themes like artistic speech and freedom of the press. But love stories can do all that. It’s all in how they’re framed.

Let’s reflect on writing romantic elements. Did every one of these considerations factor into Hearts Unbroken? No, but I’m a WCYA writing teacher and a big believer in the conversation of craft. Your manuscript may benefit from a strategy that didn’t apply to mine.

Teaching a writing workshop with Rita Williams-Garcia.

Does Your YA Novel Need Romance?

Not necessarily. If you are writing a YA mystery or fantastical quest or contemporary realism rooted in, say, family dynamics or a best friendship, please do not feel pressure to sprinkle, thread or shoehorn in romantic love. “YA lit” does not per se equal “romance.”

Honor what the individual story demands rather than compromising it to fit any misconception of market expectations. I personally would love to see more platonic friendship stories.

But if romance is right for your story….

Is It Love at First Sight?

Love at first sight also is known by informal critics as “instalove” and/or “instalust.” It’s sometimes dismissed as a trope, by folks who equate tropes with trite rather than tradition.

My theory is this: All storytelling builds on all previous storytelling. You can pull apart any story and trace the origins of its various components to previous stories. And a lot of them.

What matters is not whether love at first sight has been done before (or has been done frequently) but rather what you do with it and why.

Consider, for example, “Sleepless in Seattle,” a 1993 film, written by Nora Ephron. In the storyline, she introduces the idea of love at first touch.

Tom Hanks‘s character Sam Bloom says that, taking the hand of a woman to help her out of a car, he knew they were destined to be together. He calls it “magic.”

This concept, which is analogous to love at first sight, is reinforced throughout the story. The film concludes with Sam Bloom and Annie Reed, played by Meg Ryan, leaving the top of the Empire State Building, holding hands. First touch. Presumably happily ever after.

Granted, the audience is given sympathetic (in Sam’s case) and endearing (in Annie’s) glimpses into the daily lives of the romantic leads. We’re nudged to root for their destined connection.

Why does that work? Because the protagonist is Sam’s young son, Jonah (played by Ross Malinger), who’s been striving to bring his dad and Annie together. Jonah’s quest is to find a new wife for his widowed father and a new mom for himself. Jonah has driven the story arc and achieved his goal. We believe in his happy ending.

The pesky details of the grownups’ romantic dynamic are, at best, fodder for a sequel, though I wouldn’t have recommended one and Ephron chose not to write it.

“Love Takes Time” or Does It?

Since we’re already drawing on the pop-culture models of the 1990s, let’s consider the 1990 Mariah Carey song “Love Takes Time.” She’s singing about the end of a relationship, healing a broken heart, but she could just as easily be talking about the beginning.

A slow-building, romantic relationship between two characters gives readers more of a chance to invest, to get to know each of leads as individuals before buying into the idea of the couple.

This is the approach I took with Louise and Joey. Although she’s the first-person protagonist, he gets several chapters of shared screen time before assuming the mantle of love interest.

Yes, there’s an initial attraction, but it’s at various points stalled or derailed by ghosts of past relationships, family drama and trauma, the idiosyncratic foils inherent in daily life as well as the characters’ respective insecurities and competeing interests.

What’s with All the Love Triangles?

The most common love triangles in YA literature involve two cis male characters and a cis female character.

As Carrie Ryan points out, “…a love triangle done right isn’t about a female character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her.”

Most of the criticism of love triangles (and the typical less-than-compelling example of them) is rooted in a traditionally-gendered power dynamic.This concern comes from a long history of story in which girls and women are portrayed as prizes rather than people.

The key to transcending all that is to take Carrie’s advice and give the protagonist agency and three-dimensionality.

(In the eight years since Carrie’s post, the YA literature has begun opening up more to include a wider diversity of characters. We can extend her analysis of existing stories to apply to love triangles involving characters of all genders and orientations. That said, we need much more representation of terrific YA love stories reflecting the LGBTQIAP+ community.)

What Do They See in Each Other? Besides Looks.

I’m not suggesting that physical attributes are totally irrelevant to your writing. Describing them can help jump-start the reader’s theater of the mind. Depending on the conventionality of a given character’s attractiveness, we can often begin to extrapolate how the world responds to them, which in turn will impact their experiences and perspectives.

Moreover, a brushstroke or two detailing appearance—build, coloring, makeup, dress—can contribute to conveying a character’s personality, culture, heritage, race, etc.

But unless your story arc is centered on a character’s superficiality or bowing to peer expectations, simply categorizing a potential love interest as “hot” and then piling on the physical description isn’t likely to engage the reader’s heart.

In Hearts Unbroken, Louise is attracted to Joey’s raw energy, his focus on his photography and videography, his sense of humor, their shared rapport, and his devotion to his pet hedgehog. She empathizes with his marginalized identity, his struggle over his parents’ recent divorce, the fact that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him and that he’s the new kid in school. Does she find him physically attractive? Sure, but there’s more to it than that.

Are They Irresistibly Imperfect?

Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth

In the immortal words of Lady Gaga, “I love imperfections.”

The argument could be made that loving someone’s flaws proves the love is real. We understand, for better and worse, who someone is and we love them anyway.

Consider “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001). After a series of interpersonal misfires, in a pivotal scene, stuffy Mark Darcy lists Bridget’s endearing “faults” and then firmly declares that he likes her, just the way she is. There’s power in that. Staying power.

How Far Will They Go?

From holding hands to full-on sexy-fun time, there’s a wide range in the sensual and sexual nature of literary teen romances.

You can look at writing those scenes as a matter of conscience or a matter of craft.

We’ll consider both.

The key is to stay specific. What rings true to these particular characters, their relationship arc, situation and setting? (The more generic your scene is, the more likely it is to read clichéd and fall flat.) Frame the characters as complex people, not stereotypes rooted in gender or orientation.

Watch out for your own biases, avoid double standards, and be wary of judgmental-ness.

Consider the moral center. How will you frame the dynamic around consent—be it for a kiss on the lips or somewhere more intimate? Will faith-based beliefs play a role in decision making?

On a practical level, how will the text address the questions of birth control and protection from sexually-transmitted diseases?

How will the awkwardness manifest itself? Because awkwardness is a given. You’re working with inexperienced characters impacted by personal stakes. Weigh each participant’s emotional maturity.

How About the Whole Heart?

Yes, love matters…as does romance…as do tender touches…as does sexy fun. For many teens, these are rites of passage, partially defining experiences. And for many, they’re not. That may be a matter of timing and/or orientation.

According to a CDC survey, the percentage of high-school students who say they’ve had sex has declined from 47.8% in 2007 to 39.5% in 2017. But those YA readers who don’t engage “all the way” may still experience desire and/or kissing and/or petting and/or be otherwise socially or emotionally affected by their peers’ sexual relationships and related expectations.

At the same time, sex is only one aspect of life and, again, it’s not for everyone. If you’re writing a love story, that overarching romantic arc probably can’t sustain the entire book all by itself.

You should probably ask yourself:

  1. What else is going on?
  2. What’s happening with your protagonist’s and love interest’s family, friends, community?
  3. What’s happening within their heart that’s not about their significant other?
  4. How do they feel about themselves?

Happily Ever After?

Consider the possibility that one’s first love usually isn’t one’s last.

YA writers, I’m looking at you. And in the mirror, too.

I fret that in our quest to frame the highest possible stakes we’ve massively oversold first-love, wish-fulfillment stories to the point that teens have gotten the message that they should stay in relationships well past their expiration date.

Even in cases where there are abusive or other unhealthy dynamics in play.

What’s more, there’s something more layered and compelling about risking one’s heart after having to first mend it.

Here’s to more stories of second loves (and beyond) in YA literature.

Are You a Romantic?

Yes or no, I hope these questions and reflections help you craft that novel.

In “Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!” from season one of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s therapist, Doctor Akopian, says to her that great, defining love can be a passion rather than a person.

As for me, I often think that writing is the great love of my life.

Cynsational Notes


★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”) (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!” — Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Peek: “The time wasn’t right for a story so unabashedly Native in politic or sensibility, and I wasn’t ready emotionally to write it yet either.”

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Crystal from Rich In Color. Peek: “As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.”

The Heart of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Amanda West Lewis from Wild Things: VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Blog. Peek: “I crafted a love story juxtaposed against microaggressions and their escalation. A story that’s infused with humor and community and lived experience as a middle class Native teen.”

Let’s Indigenize Our Bookshelves and Fully Welcome Native Kids as Readers by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “I understood from a very young age that the Native part of myself didn’t seem to belong in the world of readers. (Did we send that message to all Native kids? Do we still? At what cost to them and to their non-Indian friends…).”



In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing Well-Rounded Secondary Characters

Writing is rewriting.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The third in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

We’re all the heroes of our own stories.

The same is true of our fictional friends and foes.

In responding to my new YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, an early manuscript reader mentioned that all the significant characters—except Karishma—had their own story arc.

Not that they all had fully flushed-out stories within the novel—that would’ve diluted focus. But, for each cast member, an individual narrative was hinted at through beats and brushstrokes. A whisper of an internal and external journey. The implication that they were living real lives on- and off-stage.

You may be wondering: Who’s Karishma?

Let’s back up. The protagonist is a teen reporter, Louise, who’s partnered with a teen videographer, Joey, on a story for their high school newspaper. They’re covering the controversy surrounding the diverse and inclusive casting of the school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Karishma is their editor-in-chief.

My early reader suggested that perhaps Karishma was a little more two-dimensional than the rest of the cast because she is a standard bearer. A sort of moral compass and symbolic of the best qualities of student journalism.

Such characters can work well for structure and thematic purposes. Their stability and predictability help illuminate and give measure to the growth of their more dynamic companions.

In fact, sidekick characters often are standard bearers. So are mentors, especially elders.

This is particularly the case in short forms like picture books and early readers.

But we’re talking novels. In such cases, we might ask:

(a) whether that standard-bearer approach is necessary or…

(b) whether readers might benefit from a more three-dimensional rendering, which can be especially critical when…

  1. the standard bearer is from a marginalized community, and…
  2. the protagonist is not.

Second-character Karishma is Indian American, our hero Louise is Native (Muscogee), and Louise’s love interest, Joey, is Arab American (Lebanese).

So, this wasn’t one of those frequent cases of a character of color existing as a prop for a white hero(es). Still, I wasn’t yet writing Karishma to her full potential.

What to do if we find our secondary character development insufficient?

Questions to consider:

Questions apply to short story protagonists as well!

  1. Is there an inkling that this character has an external and internal journey?
  2. What are the hints?
  3. Could they be further developed?
  4. Do we have a sense of what’s happening when that character is off-stage?
  5. What’s their backstory?
  6. What future do we imagine for them after the story concludes?

Once we have a full draft, the answers to most writing quandaries are already hinted in the text, and this is more the case with each revision. Our subconscious mind often knows first and tries to tell us.

Rereading with heightened attention to Karishma, I saw her narrative more clearly. She was the only returning staff member after the high-school newspaper had been targeted by a hostile parent group the year before. She and the Journalism teacher had persevered to rebuild the staff. She was the teen most emotionally connected to the teacher and most aware of that history. Plus, as editor, she was already driving a lot of the external plot.

Reevaluating led to my retooling a couple of scenes. Showing more emotion here, adding dialogue there, along with a narrative observation or two.

We’re talking about tweaks. But tiny changes can round out a secondary character, more fully evoke her humanity. That’s why we revise to improve our drafts. It’s why we seek early feedback, ask ourselves thoughtful questions and reimagine as needed.

Are you rethinking your secondary characters now?

Cynsational Notes


★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Peek: “The time wasn’t right for a story so unabashedly Native in politic or sensibility, and I wasn’t ready emotionally to write it yet either.”

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Crystal from Rich In Color. Peek: “As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.”

The Heart of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Amanda West Lewis from Wild Things: VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Blog. Peek: “I crafted a love story juxtaposed against microaggressions and their escalation. A story that’s infused with humor and community and lived experience as a middle class Native teen.”

Let’s Indigenize Our Bookshelves and Fully Welcome Native Kids as Readers by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “I understood from a very young age that the Native part of myself didn’t seem to belong in the world of readers. (Did we send that message to all Native kids? Do we still? At what cost to them and to their non-Indian friends…).”

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing (Sort Of) Timeless Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

We’re all living in the past, present and future.

Perhaps that’s never so true as on the page.

My 2018 YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, is set about a year after the ending of my 2001 debut tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins). The protagonists, Louise and Rain, are cousins. Rain’s story largely takes place the summer she’s going into ninth grade, but in Louise’s story, Rain is only a sophomore.

Both books are contemporary realistic fiction. An early manuscript reader of both commented that, despite the 17 years between publication dates, there was no jarring evidence of the time jump on the page. I’m hopeful that she’s right and interested in reflecting on how that happened.

Truth is, I’m skeptical of “timeless” realistic contemporary fiction. We should take care not to mute too much of the detail needed to form a setting that’s a credible springboard for disbelief.

I also don’t know that we can fully anticipate changes to come. For example, Macy’s once seemed like an invincible, mid-tier retail store. Then in 2016, corporate announced that 100 stores would be closed, and that process is ongoing. The survivors are being retooled to compete with T.J. Maxx for bargain shoppers.

George Seton wrote the script for “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Would the classic film have resonated in the same way if it had been set anywhere but Macy’s? Maybe. Could Seaton have constructed a similar, fictional setting? Sure. Should he have? The question is a slippery one.

Sometimes writing deep into the now is necessary.

We’re in the midst of a rise in political literature (#politilit) for young readers, books that respond to current events and persistent societal issues. Though it’s also a romance and family story, Hearts Unbroken arguably falls into that category.

Kids and teens need all kinds of books, including those that speak to today’s burning challenges.

That said, to the extent Rain Is Not My Indian Name still reads as contemporary (rather than as a near history), some of my success was strategic and some of it was luck.

Consider these strategies:

1) Select and frame pop-culture references thoughtfully.

I’m a geek and I tend to write geeks. In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, my protagonist, Rain Berghoff, and her big brother Fynn are sci-fi fans. Rain’s dog is named “Chewie” after Chewbacca from “Star Wars,” Fynn has a “Star Trek” mug, and Rain writes fan fiction inspired by “The X-Files.”

One of the many fine qualities of geeks is that we tend to commit comprehensively to our fandoms. It’s entirely plausible that a contemporary kid would’ve seen and even studied the 1977 “Star Wars” movie, although she might refer to it as “old school.”

Those fandom choices were iconic in American pop culture and well traveled across borders. “The X-Files” was the biggest risk. If I had to choose again, I might double down on “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” instead. However, there was a recent resurgence of the franchise. The truth really is out there.

2) Use broad strokes to sketch the tech.

I went light on the specifics, even though Rain Is Not My Indian Name was one of the first children’s-YA novels to significantly incorporate the Internet in the story. Rain’s brother owns a small web-design business, and Rain creates an online memorial in honor of her friend Galen.

That said, unlike Hearts Unbroken, cell phones are not integrated in Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 85% of teens from age 14 to 17 have a mobile phone. Today, it’s plausible that a fictional teen doesn’t own a phone. She could be in that other 15%. But at least some other teens in their life would have phones. I would’ve at least acknowledged prevalant cell phone use with a brushstroke or two…if only I could’ve foreseen it.

Map by Mark G. Mitchell of fictional Hannesburg, Kansas, which appears in both novels.

3) Add more fiction to your realism.

I strategically made up some names as part of the world building.

Rain’s hometown of Hannesburg, Kansas, is fictional. Locally-owned businesses are more plausible in small towns than, say, suburbs or urban areas commonly overrun by national chains.

So, the names of various fictional small-town restaurants, Oma Dottie’s B&B, Garden of Roses Cemetery and Blue Heaven Trailer Park all sprang from my imagination. They’re not going out of business until I say so. The same is true of the fictional Kickapoo Blues Band, “Not Your Wild West Show,” a web client of Rain’s brother.

Seventeen years in real life.

A little over one year on the page.

How did this approach inform the writing of Hearts Unbroken?

Some of the characters (and their fandoms) repeated.

New pop-culture nods include (a) J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which have enjoyed a resurgence due to the relatively recent film adaptations, and (b) superheroes from the D.C. Universe (e.g., Wonder Woman) who have arguably risen to mythological status.

I took a risk in mentioning a national chain restaurant, The Cracker Barrel, but also peppered in a few new, fictional small businesses.

I also dared to reference email, but made sure to specify that it’s outdated tech, the default of grownups. In fact, it’s inherent in a plot point that teens generally don’t use email.

Looking back, you may regret a judgment call or two. But these tips should help hedge your bets in writing “contemporary” realistic fiction that doesn’t skew historical too soon.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.

Guest Post: Agent-Author Tracy Marchini on Page Turns in Picture Books

By Tracy Marchini
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve been thinking a lot about page turns in picture books recently, and all of the amazing things they can do, including:

  • Show the passage of time 
  • Create humor 
  • Dictate pacing 

Show the passage of time 

Using page turns to show the passage of time is probably the usage that everybody is familiar with. The story progresses as you turn the page, and with each page turn some time has elapsed.

In a book like Chicken Wants a Nap, illustrated by Monique Felix (The Creative Company, 2017), only a few minutes may have elapsed between each page turn.

But a page turn can also represent the passage of whole seasons, as we’ve seen in a number of picture books that quickly take us through Fall, Spring, Summer and Winter, or through years – as we’ve seen in a number of nonfiction biographies.

In every picture book, a page turn brings us forward in time – be it by a second or by a decade.


Create humor

In my own picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, the page turns are vital for creating humor in the story. On the first spread, we’re introduced to Chicken and her primary goal – getting a nap.

The text reads:

“It’s a good day to be a chicken. The sun is up. The grass is warm. And Chicken wants a nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With a page turn though, everything shifts, and suddenly Chicken’s nap isn’t looking so likely. The next page reads:

“BACAWK!
It’s a bad day to be a chicken. The rain is falling. Her feathers are wet. Chicken cannot nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With each page turn, the tone of the story shifts – it’s a good day and Chicken’s problem is solved! It’s a bad day and Chicken’s solution is ruined. The humor needs a ‘pause’ in between each shift in order to work – and that would be completely lost if, for example, it was a good day on the left page and a bad day on the right. (More on the pause later!)

Page turns can also bring the humor in escalation – particularly when you’re working in the traditional picture book structure of three tries and fails until a success.

With each attempt, there should always be an escalation. So if a character wants to build a sandcastle, they’d start with a shovel, move on to a bucket and then maybe end with a bulldozer. And each escalation would come with a page turn – a pause to sit with the character’s current idea before the surprise on the next page.

Dictate pacing

One of my favorite spreads in Chicken Wants a Nap is the one where Chicken is interrupted by the cow. In the art, Monique Felix has Chicken on the left side of the page looking oh-so-annoyed, and the cow has its head turned towards her.

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

In this spread, the art is subtly telling the reader to linger by having the cow turned away from the bottom right corner and instead back towards the page that’s already been read. It subtly asks the reader to take just one more good look at that chicken (and her hilarious expression!)

In this way, the artwork puts a “pause” on turning the page, and those two work in tandem with the text to help dictate the pace of the story.

When I’m writing my own work or editing a client’s picture book, I like to think of page turns as a “beat” of their own.

When I submit picture book manuscripts, I don’t include spread numbers, because I know that the publisher and/or illustrator will work those out on their own.

But when formatting a manuscript, I think it’s safe to give a little “nudge” by how you break down the text itself. (Usually this means separating intended spreads with an extra space between lines – so you create a pause yourself while an editor or agent reads.)

 As an agent, I’m always on the hunt for more humorous picture books!

I love humor that plays with juxtaposition of text and art, or a clever/witty reversal of expectations. And – of course – manuscripts that can make excellent use of a page turn!

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents both debut and award-winning authors and illustrators of fiction and non-fiction for children and teens.

To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.

As an author, her debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France.

She holds an M.F.A in Writing for Children from Simmons College and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.