Hearts Unbroken: Writing Stories “Loosely Inspired By” Your Real Life

On our way out to a high school winter dance.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

My senior year of high school, “Back to the Future” was a hot new release, Duran Duran was ruling the radio waves, and I said the worst possible thing with the best possible intentions to my high school boyfriend. It did not go over well at the time.

Not to fret. We recovered. We even dated again. And a third time after that. But the mistake lingered in my mind.

Where there is regret, there is a story.

I’m not my protagonist, Louise. He’s not her love interest, Joey. But we have a few things in common with them—the northeast Kansas suburbs of our adolescence, our respective heritages. We were both student journalists, and so are they. But his dad wasn’t a commerical pilot and mine wasn’t a dentist. His mom didn’t work for Hallmark and mine didn’t earn an MA/JD. I didn’t have a little brother, and he didn’t drive a Jeep. Unlike Louise and Joey, we didn’t live in a post-9/11 world or during the Trump administration.

What’s more, Louise and Joey’s contemporary Kansas suburbs are different than they were for us back in 1980s. In certain ways, it might be tougher for us to have grown up there today.

That said, I have a few things in common with all my protagonists—even the guardian angels, vampires and werecats from my Tantalize-Feral series universe. All authors share a bit of ourselves with every character. Not just our protagonists—our villains, our less nefarious antagonists, our sidekicks, our red-herrings—you name it. That doesn’t mean those characters are especially like us, but we had to draw on some insight, at least a flash of sensibility, to create them.

The fedora? My Laura Holt of “Remington Steele” phase.

Hearts Unbroken wasn’t the first time a real-life incident was a springboard for one of my stories, so I’ve done some thinking about all that.

Here are a few suggestions for those trying to do the same.

1) Ask permission. I wrote to my high school boyfriend, told him what I had in mind and asked if he was okay with it. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have moved forward with the story.

I know that not everyone will agree that this is a necessary step (at least if they’re changing the names). But each of us owns our own life story. For me, asking was about courtesy, respect.

2) Don’t be otherwise restricted by what really happened (unless it’s memoir).

The only remnant of real-life dialogue that survived my experience was a couple of incredibly awkward, babbly, and inappropriate lines uttered by me and even those have been wholly revised.

Think of your personal experience as a springboard, not a roadmap.

3) Let yourself be healed. If the incident was sufficient to launch a trade YA novel, it’s probably fraught with conflict. Writing it out, changing the narrative for the better or to throw out a life preserver to readers can help you process and move on.

During my early adulthood, I deeply disliked Cindy Lou AKA Teen Me. She skipped too much of what would’ve made her happy to do what was expected by The Powers That Be.

I see her differently now.

She was sensitive and tenderhearted. Ambitious and hardworking. She loved to read and preferred heart-to-heart talks (and walks) with her best friends and cousins over cheering on the sidelines or making the weekend social scene. She spent a lot of time going through motions, being a good girl and people pleaser.

However, Cindy Lou didn’t have a fully formed brain or a whole lot of influence in her world. The pressures put on her—coupled with a lack of societal/institutional validation and support—might’ve broken another kid. It did break some kids. And none of that was their fault. Or hers.

It took decades to get here, but in part because of writing Hearts Unbroken, I’m proud of Cindy Lou. She’s the one who decided to study journalism at The University of Kansas, which led me to Michigan Law School and a career as a published author.

And all of that makes me happy. I’m grateful.

So, I encourage you to write the stories of your lived experience, the ones only you can write. Do so with thoughtful consideration for those good folks who played a role in reality, including yourself.

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.

New Voice: Dawn Quigley on Apple in the Middle

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is a watershed year for the release of Native young adult novels.

From Eric Gansworth’s Give Me Some Truth (Scholastic, 2018), the followup to his If I Ever Get Out of Here (Scholastic, 2013), and Tim Tingle’s Trust Your Name (7th Generation, September 2018), the fourth in his No Name series, to the upcoming Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, October 2018), I’m pleased to feature a newcomer to the age market, Dawn Quigley.

Her debut novel, Apple in the Middle (North Dakota State University Press, 2018), features Apple, a teen whose mother, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, died due to complications from her birth.

Raised by her white physician father and stepmother in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities, Apple has never had contact with her mother’s family.

The story focuses on Apple’s experience during an extended summer visit with these unknown relatives on the tribe’s reservation located near the Canadian border in what is now north central North Dakota.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

As I was writing some poetry I found myself sharing my frustrations of how many non-Native authors were creating books which were stereotypically shedding negative light onto Native culture. Here was my inspiration, my poem, and my call for the Native world to not let others tell our stories for us:

Arise 

I am tired of seeing Indians portrayed as victims in literature.
I am tired of how Natives are dripping with alcoholism in your books.
And I am tired of images of
sexually deranged,
violently abused and
educationally-lacking characters. 

Native people, arise!
We have, and are still, climbing the mountain of injustice;
Carrying our history on our back as we tread to the top to see the vision our ancestors told us of.
But, instead of glimpsing at the majestic vista,
Too often we must listen as writers plunge our People back to the desolate valleys again.
But you only show the darkness, shutting out the light of hope, and resilience; condemning the beacon of a better tomorrow to melt away.
We Natives have lived in nightfall, but revel in the sunrise of tomorrow.
We, at times, hibernate for a season, but awake in springtime of life. 

Native people, arise!
Our stories, like of old, must reflect the balance between darkness and light; between the highs and the lows; and between this world and the next.
Our history has been one of
genocide,
tear-wrenching tragedy,
and historical trauma.
This must be remembered. This should be told.
But we also know the beauty of our culture; the history which we hold tight; and the values we pass down seven generations. 

So why, when we only have our imaginations to limit us, do we as Native writers and storytellers allow them to present only our darkness to the world?
Why do continually let
them tell our tales? 

Native people, arise!
Where are the heroic characters in our modern Native fiction?
There are too few Indigenous writers who shine the light on our culture.
But I am greedy. I want more.
Why don’t we write about our success –
Not success as the world may see it, but in our Indian way?
Tell us about your grandmother’s quilts.
Tell us why your sister worked two jobs and went to night school for her college degree.
Tell us the time when your grandfather’s teaching touched your life.
Tell us.
Tell us.
Just tell us.

Honoring author Joseph Bruchac during the Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices & Heroes for the 21st Century panel at the American Library Association conference. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, moderator Alia Jones, Joseph Bruchac and Dawn Quigley.


Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable? 

My greatest challenge was that I had no idea how to write a book!

In teaching middle school English and reading for most of my 18 years, I spent countless hours reading YA books for my students to select read-aloud and classroom novels.

I fell in love with reading books that could transform my students.
I began writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers, then wrote full commentary essays. I gained a lot of confidence each time something was published.

Next I branched out to poetry.
But to write a book, this was the challenge. I took a few courses at a local writer’s loft on how to sell and promote books, but not on the actual task of writing.

I did read only one book on it: Stephen King’s On Writing (Scribner, 2000). That book, and reading up to 10 books a month, were my teachers.

I would use favorite sections of a book to learn how the author crafted dialogue, the climatic parts, etc. Then I wrote roughly two pages a day for some time until I had a finished book! I didn’t outline my story at all, and this is something I will do in the future: begin with a rough frame.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The best moment was when I actually finished the book! I felt like a five-year-old wanting to run out and say, “Look, Ma, I wrote a book!”

Then the down side was trying to learn how to pitch and query editors and agents for my Apple in the Middle. I got many “bites” and asks for partials and fulls and also rejects, but it was one editor from North Dakota State University Press who made my writing career when the first line in her letter back to me was: “I love Apple. I love everything about her world.”

Suzzanne Kelly loved my Native coming-of-age book, and this, so far, has been another great moment.
My book has just come out, so I’m doing readings, signings, et cetera. I know I’m only beginning!

Rolling hills of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

Turtle Mountain rose

I taught in K-12 grades for over 18 years, and it was challenging at times to find books and materials that reflected Native people respectfully.

As a Native teacher, I wanted to show the positive aspects of our culture. I knew that I have lived and seen these beautiful Native aspects and began to educate myself and my peers that there are books out there, but we all need to put in the effort to find, read and evaluate them.

I began this book because of a beckoning voice I kept hearing: Tell them the stories.

My first instinct was to push it away. How could I write a book? Who was I? But I felt this book was to be a legacy for my children to hear about my Turtle Mountain grandparents and what they taught me-and are still teaching me today even though their footprints are no longer on this Earth, but in my soul. And like many Native people who are storytellers, I knew that the best way to share history and life lesson is through the telling of tales.

As I was in the middle of the book, I started to wonder if this was meant to be more than just a family tale, but instead a way to let non-Native people peer through the keyhole to get a glimpse into our world. A world that is a beautiful one, but also a world that is many times misunderstood.

Cynsational Notes

Dawn Quigley, enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota, is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her website offers support for educators in finding, evaluating and implementing Native American curriculum content from an indigenous perspective.

In addition to her coming-of-age Young Adult novel, Apple in the Middle, Dawn has over 25 published articles and poems, in mainstream magazines, academic journals and newspapers, including American Indian Quarterly, Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought, Indian Country Today, Hollywood and Vine magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

She was awarded the St. Catherine University Denny Prize Award for Distinction in Writing and has been a finalist in both the Minnesota Loft Literary Center‘s Emerging Writer award and its Mentor Series.
Dawn lives in the metro area in Minnesota with her husband and two girls.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Transitions: Lunging Forward, Leaning Back

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am leaving my day job at an extraordinary early childhood center on June 30.

Plenty of people think I am “retiring.”

But if you’re reading this, you probably could guess that I’m not retiring at all. I’m beginning my full-time career as a writer.

At last.

I’ve written and taught about transitions much of my life as a clinical social worker and still struggle with how to convey these vulnerable, beautiful, painful yet joyful, times in our lives.

Because they are difficult.

We feel the need for different or new or next; we feel the need to take a turn on our personal or professional journeys (or both). We feel a yearning. A longing to move forward. An excitement and curiosity about what the new direction will offer us – or what we will make of it.

But we also feel the pull back towards that which we want, or are ready to leave, toward the comfort, familiarity, certainty of the place, the experience, the days we are almost leaving behind.

This is what I’m feeling as I leave a wonderful job at this early childhood center that hums and bubbles with small communities of little ones busy at work and where miracles of teaching and learning surprise and delight every day.

I love coming to work and being at work in a place that feels like a second home. I love the use of many skills and strengths I was pretty sure I owned, but had not had the opportunity to use. I love the children who have passed through my life with their extraordinary desire to explore their world and the powerful capacity to connect to others. I love my boss and friend; and I love the teachers who with seeming endless amounts of energy, create small communities of friends and classrooms of explorers, scientists, artists, technicians, builders, and more.

I took on my day job when I was in the process of winding down the career that ran parallel to my dreams of being a writer – that of a clinical social worker specializing in women’s and eating/body issues and building emotional resilience.

But it’s time for me to stop getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour and a half before getting reading. I also need time to exercise before I am exhausted from eight hours of a very busy, though wonderful, day. And I want to spend time with my husband when I am not falling asleep because I need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to write.

This beautiful place I’ve had the honor to work is integrally interwoven with my life as a children’s author.

I met the woman who has been my boss and friend for 24 years in the library of my son’s school. He had been coming home each week on the day his class visited the library, sharing the excitement of what they had done that day with “the best teacher in the world.”

I decided I wanted to meet this teacher, and went in on a Tuesday, when I had no clients in my private practice. A fabulous children’s library sprawled through the big open space (along with two floor-to-almost-ceiling robots and a marble-counting machine that counted the books each child read) and the welcoming teacher invited me to take home whatever books I wanted.

I dived into picture books and middle grade novels as though I’d been starving to read. My own middle-grade life was peppered with some wonderful classics like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, but not anything like what I found to read now – Jerry Spinelli, Karen Cushman, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Creech, Richard Peck, Gail Carson Levine, and more and more and more…and more. 

I wanted to write this.

I began volunteering one day a week in the library, and kept on for eighteen years. When the K-5 school closed, and my private practice was winding down, I accepted an offer to be the office administrator at the early childhood center.

Every step of my journey as a children’s writer, I’ve had the encouragement and support of this master educator my son introduced me to so long ago.

During the days of volunteering, I often felt like Peter Pan sitting on the windowsill as I listened to her teaching, learned about extending the books into classroom discussions and projects, learned how to read a story to children.

I could say 30 or 40 more things about what the kind of encouragement I received means, but if you’re reading this, you’ll understand when I say that the foundation of her support and encouragement is the fact that she believed in my stories, and believed in me.

And that’s an extraordinary gift.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of transitions during my time at this early childhood center, from children so ready to run into the classroom that a parent is left open-mouthed at the door, to those who struggle for days with “missing feelings” that are soothed by loving teachers.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I always have been, I guess. I wean myself gently.

I will miss every adult and every child at my “day job” terribly…and yet I can’t wait to explore my open days.

But of course, I’ll be back in September, volunteering to read stories to eager little listeners.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes poetry and picture books.

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;” Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.

But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates.
Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim,” or “The Shape of Water.” But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:

 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless.
It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.”
– Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT

The Pale Man
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

“The Shape of Water” is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest.
And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, “Crimson Peak,” the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something.
Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:

“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love.
Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you
until the end… The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we
choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

Guest Post: Michele Weber Hurwitz on Being Pushed to Persevere

By Michele Weber Hurwitz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We writers know well the lessons of perseverance.

Neil Gaiman said: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy. And that hard.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe said: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

And Ray Bradbury said: “You fail only if you stop writing.”

But we also know this: we can read all the quotes in the world and tape them above our desks, but sometimes, we just can’t get it together.

Four years ago, I got an idea for a middle grade novel. A fidgety, energetic kid protests the long hours of constant sitting in class (he gets school-comas) then attempts to do something out of his comfort zone to invent a solution.

Decent idea, I thought. Had potential. I got to work, adding in a cast of supporting characters, a setting, and fleshing out the plot.

Ten drafts and three years of back and forth with my agent, and I was about to abandon the project. What at first was fun and inspiring had become frustrating and burdensome. I couldn’t get it right, and didn’t know why.

I’d published two middle grade novels already – Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb, 2011) and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb, 2014) – writing each of them in about six months. Why was this idea so problematic?

I tried all sorts of fixes during the three years. Everything writers are “supposed” to do. I put the manuscript away for a while. I went back to it with what I thought was a new perspective. I hiked, because I’d read that can help work through story issues. 

Retreat at The Writing Barn
I went on a writing retreat. I did all sorts of loosen-up-my-brain exercises. I took craft classes. 

But draft after draft, it wasn’t coming together, and deep down, I knew it before my agent read each one and told me sadly that, no, I still wasn’t there.

I admit I wanted to quit writing entirely at this point.

But something kept nagging at me. It might’ve been personal – one of my kids had trouble sitting for long hours in school – but I think it was more than that.

In one of the drafts, I’d written a line of dialogue from my main character, Ethan, where he said: “The thing is, you gotta believe, you know? If you don’t, what’s the point?”

What was the point, indeed? I thought about that line for a while.

Then! (Yes, thankfully, there’s a then.) I was cleaning out the bookcase in our family room, weeding out some books my kids had outgrown and I could donate, when I stumbled upon a worn, well-read copy of The Carrot Seed (by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (Harper 1945)). 

This has always been one of my favorite picture books because of its simple yet powerful message. Keep at it. Have faith. Don’t listen to the doubters. A carrot will grow.

Same message of perseverance as the writing quotes, but it was coming from a little boy. That’s when I realized Ethan was a lot like the kid in the book, laid-back but determined. Why didn’t I tune everything else out and listen to him? 

I’d let the process and my aggravations fill up my head, instead of Ethan’s voice.

I abandoned every single one of the ten drafts I’d written and started fresh. Instead of Ethan narrating the story on his own, which is what I’d been doing over and over, I added in the viewpoints of Ethan’s sister, a couple of their friends, and a tough, outcast kid. 

I tried a different way of telling the story, short and snappy, like back and forth social media commentary.

I listened to not only Ethan, but the message in The Carrot Seed, and I even wove the book into Ethan’s arc. He, too, becomes inspired by the story. And as I wrote, a strange thing happened: Ethan’s perseverance in his plotline became mine as well.

I wrote draft #11 in one month. It sold to Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint two months later, and Ethan Marcus Stands Up was published in September.

How gratifying it was to receive this email from a reader last week: “I get school-comas a lot! You definitely get kids. Thanks!”

And – the icing on top – Ethan told me, as I was typing The End, that he wasn’t done. Plant another carrot seed, he said. Inspired by his doggedness and persistence, I wrote up a sequel proposal.

My editor loved it. Book 2, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, comes out in September 2018.

A little fictional magic between character and author, and out came a book. Then a second one. Next time, I’ll listen right from the opening line.

Cynsations Notes

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of three middle grade novels, with a fourth coming fall 2018. Her most recent novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up was published in September by Aladdin. 
Her previous novels include The Summer I Saved The World…In 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both published by Wendy Lamb). They have been nominated for several state reading awards. 
She lives in Chicago with her family. She is an avid walker, passionate consumer of ice cream, and finds inspiration everywhere. 
For more information about her books, school visits or discussion guides, check her website
Watch the book trailer for Ethan Marcus Stands Up.

Guest Post: Janni Lee Simner on Setbacks & The Writing Journey

By Janni Lee Simner
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In writing, as in many professions, there’s a lot of emphasis on getting that one big break.

This is the story we tell about writers: that we slave away for months or years or decades and then—at last!—that first story or first novel sells. Our career is launched, and we ride off into the sunset, where we happily keep writing and selling our work forever.

That’s a good story. There’s a reason we’re drawn to it. And very rarely, it does happen that way.

Yet for every J.K. Rowling, whose first break is the break that sets the course for a lifetime’s career, there are thousands of working writers whose stories are far more complicated than that—and that’s okay.

It’s more than okay. It’s normal.

I ran a blog series called Writing for the Long Haul where I asked writers who’ve been publishing professionally for a decade or longer—often much longer—to talk about their careers and their writing lives. Those careers looked different in a lot of ways, and seeing the many shapes a writing life can take was illuminating all by itself.

But the one thing that really struck me was this: nearly every writer who wrote for the series had experienced setbacks along the way—generally setbacks after their first sale—and had continued writing anyway.

As I edited posts for the series, I realized that when we see a writer whose career seems to have been propelled by their first big break, without any stumbling blocks once that first book hits the shelves, we’re often seeing a writer early in his or her career, well before the ten year mark.

It’s relatively easy for a career to look like it’s on a straightforward upward success trajectory over the short haul. Over the long haul, with occasional exceptions, things get more complicated.

The terrain grows more uneven, and the ups and downs kick in.

Reading Cynsations’ new Survivors series, I see a similar pattern: our field changes, as writing survivor after writing survivor makes clear, and so our careers change, too.

“I have had many ups and downs in this unexpected journey into writing,” G. Neri says, while Alex Flinn talks about how what publishers are looking for—and what they promote—can change dramatically over time.

When I sold my first short story in the early 1990s, I thought that was it: I’d broken in, and this writing thing was going to be easy now. Then my second story got rejected, repeatedly, and I spent a couple years writing many more stories before I sold one again.

Then, when I sold my first three books, the middle grade Phantom Rider trilogy, I thought I’d really broken in. Instead my next several books and book proposals were rejected, too, and I waited nearly a decade to sell my next novel, Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer.

Those years were active and important for me creatively, and I became a much better writer during them, but professionally, they were pretty silent.

To an outsider, my career might have looked like it was over.

A few years after that I shifted to dark YA fantasy as author of the Bones of Faerie trilogy, and I’ve also recently started sharing nonfiction writing insights as author of the Writing Life series of chapbooks.

One of the books in that series, Doing What You Love: Practical Strategies for Living a Creative Life, is just out in paperback.

I expect I’ll keep rebooting my career and reinventing myself, if I keep writing at all.

At first I thought setbacks meant that I had failed. Now I know they mean I’ve been writing long enough to have setbacks—long enough to have a career that’s as complicated as it is individual.

Writers don’t talk about setbacks much, at least not in public, and because of this, we sometimes feel like our struggles are ours alone.

But working on the Writing for the Long Haul series, as well as countless one-on-one offline conversations with writers I admire, has taught me that’s not true.

Reading writing blogs and skimming social media, we hear one story. More quietly, offline, we hear another.

A bad year, or five, or ten, is not failure. It’s just a bad year or five or ten.

I believe now that there is no one big break, and there is no one big chance. Instead there are many chances over the course of our careers. Some work out the way we hope. Others don’t. That’s okay.

A writing career isn’t about any one moment. It’s about the winding and heartbreaking and glorious and ever-ongoing journey of building a writing life.

Excerpted/adapted from Doing What You Love: Practical Strategies for Living a Creative Life.

Author Interview: Clete Barrett Smith on Writing Challenging Stories & Mr. 60%

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Clete Barrett Smith, discussing his new novel, Mr. 60% (Penguin Random House, 2017). 


I heard Clete read the opening chapter several years ago for his graduate reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It gave me chills, and I’m so happy the book is now out in the world.

From the promotional copy:

Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem. 


What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer. 

Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret. 


But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I took a leave of absence from my teaching duties to enroll at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to pursue my dream of writing for young readers. 

Shortly after that, my then-wife’s uncle got in touch to let us know that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and had been given six months to live. We invited him to come and live with us.

This was a man who I adored; he was a talented, funny, friendly, charismatic mess of a guy. And I did not have much previous experience with the process of dying—especially not up close—and as I was at home instead of at work, I became one of his primary caregivers.

College Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts

The experience fundamentally changed me. My relationship with death had mostly been through stories, where people offer pearls of wisdom on their deathbed and stoically accept their fate.

This is not what I was seeing. This man was furious that he had cancer. He was not “ready” to die and he did not feel like giving anybody any pearls of wisdom. It was messy and scary and heartbreaking.

And when it was over I knew that I had to tell this story, for one reason because it was the book that I wanted to see on the shelves and had not found, and also because writing it helped me find some closure.

At the same time I had been kicking around an idea about a YA book told from the perspective of a high school drug dealer.

I knew some of these kids from my teaching career—they flew under the radar and would never cause any problems with teachers, because getting in trouble would raise red flags and limit access to their teenage clients. I got to know a few of these kids (as much as they would let a teacher get close, anyway) and couldn’t stop wondering about what their lives were like when they left school at the end of the day. I ended up combining the two ideas for Mr. 60%.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

The challenges were mostly psychological. 

Many of the difficult scenes that happen in Mr. 60% are basically exactly what happened when I was caring for this man. Some of the dialogue is verbatim from real life. 
So when I would sit down at my writing desk for the day I knew that I would be reliving some very painful memories in very vivid detail.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I don’t think this book would exist without my experiences in the MFA program at VCFA. 

Uma Krishnaswami & Clete

First off, everyone there was encouraging people to “write the book that scares you.”

Well, the idea of this book certainly scared me.

I was used to writing funny, lighthearted middle grade stuff, and even thinking about this book took me way out of my comfort zone.

I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor in my second semester. When I initially met with Uma Krishnaswami, she asked what I would be working on. 

It was the first time that I had admitted out loud that I would be tackling this project, and as soon as I opened my mouth I just started bawling. Uma came around the desk, put her arms around me, and told me it was going to be all right. She was so helpful and supportive, not just with the writing, but with the emotional toll of writing the book.

I remember early in the process, I was going to give up and go back to writing lighthearted stuff. It was just too painful to dredge up all of these memories, and I felt very alone at my writing desk. 

Well, on the day I was going to give up, Uma called me up. It was rare for advisors to call students, at least for me—this is the only time I can remember it happening in my two years in the program—and she was calling to say that she had found a song that reminded her of the character in my book who had terminal cancer, and she sent me a link to the song.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the song, as I didn’t really connect with it in the same way. 

But that phone call made all of the difference. I didn’t feel so alone when I sat down at my writing desk anymore, and I swear I could feel Uma’s arms around me again during the really tough parts of the writing process.

After that, I have never written a book so fast. The bulk of what became the final manuscript was written over three “packets” (which is three months in real time).

With Uma’s support and encouragement, it just sort of came pouring out of me.

How was your approach to writing this book different than your previous work?

My first three novels were for middle grade and they had a first-person POV narrator who was lighthearted and fairly open about discussing the struggles he was facing as he moved from boy to teenager.

So for this one I thought it would be an interesting challenge—and fitting for this particular character—to have a main character that told the reader nothing at all about himself. This is an extension of the fact that he tells the other characters in the book nothing about himself—he has built his walls tall and sturdy.

So I really wanted to use a spare, minimalist approach, where the reader has to infer everything through words and actions.

It’s also a very emotional story, though, although nothing is explained for the reader. I am hoping that the result is emotionally resonant.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said Mr. 60% “is well-structured, moving quickly between beats but not rushing” and calls Matt “a compelling central character.”

Clete Barrett Smith is the author of the middle-grade Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast series (Disney) (Aliens on Vacation, Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise), as well as Magic Delivery (Disney, 2014). 

A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Smith taught English, drama, and speech at the high school level while continuing to write. 

Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Inspiration, Confidence & Revenge of the Happy Campers

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Jennifer Ziegler to discuss the third book in her MG series featuring the Brewster triplets, Revenge of the Happy Campers (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Mother Nature Meets Sister Nature



Dawn, Darby, and Delaney Brewster are always up for an adventure, whether it’s ruining a wedding (for good reasons!) or turning a Christmas pageant tradition on its head. But now they’re about to go where they’ve never gone before: Camping!



They’re spending spring break with their beloved Aunt Jane at the same campground she and their mom used to go to as kids. But the first morning there, they run into a trio of boys, and one starts bragging about his plan to become the President of the United States. Clearly this is Dawn’s destiny, and the two, well, don’t become fast friends.



Between the fierce competition to see who’s the best leader and some unfortunate encounters with nature, this camping thing is sure looking like a bad idea. And when their final contest puts them in real danger, it might take six future leaders of the country to keep this from being the worst trip in history.



Camp can be such an exciting adventure. Did your childhood experiences inspire Revenge of the Happy Campers?

Definitely! I never went to “away camp,” but I had many outdoor adventures with my dad over the years, since camping and fishing are pretty much his favorite things to do.

Jennifer’s daughter, Renee, son Owen (right), and their cousin
Gabe (middle) after a successful day of camping & fishing.

Pappy Camp might not fit the standard definition of fun for a modern young person, but it was always a great experience.

I remember very primitive lodgings, fishing mishaps, bad weather, and critters visiting in the night. But I also remember the beautiful scenery, the sightings of wildlife, the thrill of reeling in a big fish, and how great food tastes when it’s cooked in the open air.

Mostly, though, I recall that sense of triumph. Every time I went on a camping trip, I came away feeling bigger, stronger, and more capable.

Renee holds up a mangrove snapper that she caught.

This is the third book in the Brewster triplets series. Were there challenges in keeping everything that happened in previous books straight, or by now do you feel like you know the girls as well as your own family? (and can readers start with the third book without feeling lost?)

Right before I started work on Happy Campers, I reread the first two books to remind myself of the pacing and rhythm and make sure I kept certain details straight.

I still had the characters’ voices in my head, so that part wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it’s going to take some serious effort to get their voices out of my head when I write a non-Brewster book.

The girls do seem like family to me now. I talk about them as if they really exist and often wonder how they’d react to world events. I find myself making remarks like, “Oh, the Brewsters would hate this,” or I’ll describe an actual person as being “like Delaney.”

It’s a magnificent feeling — and also a little alarming — when people you’ve imagined seem to have come to life.

I do think readers could start with the third book. It’s a complete story that doesn’t build off of the previous books’ plots, and background is given when needed.

Of course, those who’ve read the first two novels would recognize certain references and understand characters and relationships from the get-go.

Will there be more Brewster triplet books?

There will be! I’m currently writing Book Four in the series. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that the girls are twelve now and facing some new challenges — at home and elsewhere. I’m hoping it will be out fall of 2018.


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The first inspiration? Probably the relationship I had with reading while growing up.

I think when you are young, the bonds you have with favorite stories and characters are stronger and more special than the ones you form as an adult. You’re experiencing ideas and feelings for the very first time and learning about yourself and the world. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say these beloved stories can help shape you into the person you become — or help you tap into parts of yourself you never realized were there.

The tales that enchanted me early in life (Judy Blume novels, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, the first Star Wars trilogy) wove into the matrix that is me. Their worlds will always seem like cherished places I’ve visited, and their characters will always feel like old friends.

It’s similar to love. No … it is love. That’s what I recognized as a young reader. And I came to believe that if I could create stories that allowed young people to recognize themselves and understand life a little better, it wouldn’t just be fun, it would also be an important, almost sacred calling.

Competition is an underlying theme in Revenge of the Happy Campers. What advice do you have for writers about competition?

I feel strongly that with writing, the real competition has to be with yourself.

There do exist official literary competitions that result in fancy dinners and your name etched on a plaque — and don’t get me wrong, such honors feel fantastic  — but they can’t be what motivates you.

Owen & Renee hiking at Enchanted Rock in Texas.

What really matters is pushing yourself to do better in some way and succeeding. If, by the time you’ve finished a project, you have grown as a writer — that’s a win.

Perhaps you’ve honed your process or attempted a new style or genre. Maybe you’ve identified a bad habit that you can now avoid or learned a trick that can help you tackle writer’s block.

Such achievements won’t get you a shiny trophy (unless you give yourself one, and that’s okay), but they’re the stuff that will keep you fueled and focused for the next writing challenge. It’s proof that you can handle the demands of this calling.

Confidence. Faith in your abilities. Belief that you can overcome the fear and doubt (which never go away). I think those are the real rewards that can change you, and your craft, for the better.


Cynsational Notes

Jennifer & Chris lead horses with Fletcher & Renee 
on a camping trip.

Reviewer Sharyn Vane of the Austin American-Statesman wrote, “Ziegler’s young democratic-process aficionados are as appealing as ever, brimming with confidence and problem-solving savvy. They’re empathetic enough to notice that their aunt is saddened by the state of the campground she remembers visiting each summer….full of real-world adventures, both wise and witty.”

Like the Brewster triplets, Jennifer Ziegler is a native Texan and a lover of family, history, barbecue, and loyal dogs.

Although she only has one sister, she does know what it is like to have four kids living in the same house.

She is the author of several books for young people, including Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008). Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, author Chris Barton, and their four children.

Guest Post: Jane Kurtz on Bringing Books Into the World

By Jane Kurtz

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Giving birth to a book is hard. I know. I know. Whine whine whine. Anyway, labor pains are almost over. The new middle grade novel is almost out in the world.

On the verge of my book’s birthday, I returned to the Portland school where my brother and fellow author, Chris Kurtz, was teaching third grade the year I was revising Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017) —and where I got to read the whole manuscript, chapter by chapter, week after week, to those third graders.

As I struggled to understand my own story and its implications, we talked about Jupiter, my busking, kick-ass protagonist and how she seemed to confident and bold and in charge, but how she was desperately missing her dad (while claiming she wasn’t).

We discussed the stuff that was going to bring her down–her adopted Ethiopian cousin and her new, quirky Portland neighborhood and what it costs us when we flex our muscles and boast that “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” We sang. My brother and his students even made up a song about Portland bridges for my book.

This month, when I returned to the school, I showed the students a picture of me interviewing a girl from Chris Kurtz’s classroom the year before I read to them. She came up to me at a reading appreciation night and made me laugh by the way she talked about being a twin. I asked her if I could interview her for the middle grade novel I was writing—and lo and behold it happened.

“So,” I said. “I was working hard to write my first draft when you all were in second grade. And now you’re in fifth grade!”

I have more than thirty books published. How can it take me so dang long to write-revise-revise-revise a novel?

But it does.

And honestly I also love it that the craft is so demanding. That’s one reason I teach at Vermont
College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA literature: I want to be a student of the craft of writing for my whole life, constantly filling myself up with new ways to think about writing and reading and what it means to tell a compelling and zingy story.

Suma Subramariam and Jane

A few years ago at a VCFA residency, I mentioned in a lecture that I was thinking about creating some ready-to-read books (something I’ve dabbled in for two U.S. publishers) for Ethiopian kids.

I learned to read in Ethiopia. I’ve helped start an NGO that has been exploring the question of what it means to have a “reading culture” and how readers and writers can support each other around the globe.

Now Ethiopians are starting to write children’s books. But this easy reader category is its own beast. I haven’t seen those in Ethiopia yet.

And they’re vital.

After my lecture, I sat with Suma Subramariam, one of my VCFA students, who emigrated from India and supports a school there, at a picnic table. She encouraged me to be more specific.

I told her I knew I didn’t want to commit to production and distribution. I only wanted to see if I could create colorful, appealing, culturally appropriate, local language books that would maybe inspire some Ethiopian artists and writers to try their hand at this particular type of book—one that seems simple but isn’t, one that is a first bridge to reading. Otherwise, I was pretty vague.

My idea took a big step forward a year ago when I traveled in Ethiopia with two professional American painters, two professional Ethiopian painters, two photographers, and another writer.

We went off the grid to the remote part of Ethiopia where I have my best childhood memories.

Jane and her siblings in Maji

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we experimented with a bookmaking day.

The Ethiopian artists read aloud a couple of stories that volunteers had helped translate into Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s languages. Ethiopian and American kids sat at a table and drew and painted.

One of the American artists took the work done that day, scanned it, and showed me what a book could look like:

 Pretty cool!

When we got home, my sister and I tried more simple stories, most of them inspired by Ethiopian terets or wise sayings like, “When spiders unite, they can stop a lion.”

An illustrator friend did thumbnails to show how illustrators start their work.

Then I organized another bookmaking day in Portland, Oregon, where I live and where Cecile—who was about to start middle school—studied those thumbnails and created most of the art for a second book.

Figuring out every step for our first ten Ready Set Go Books has also been haaaaard.

I’m a volunteer, after all, and so is almost everyone else who’s participated. I’ve had to learn about illustration and page turns and layout and digital design.

And then there’s the question of who will handle production and distribution. Last month, several NGOs paid a small Portland printer to print up 900 copies in three different languages and carried them to rural Ethiopia.

Liz McGovern, Executive Director of WEEMA International said, “I can’t tell you how much the kids absolutely LOVED the books! I have never in my life seen kids so engrossed and so determined to read. It was such a beautiful thing!”

Ethiopian students reading Ready Set Go Books

Author Edith Wharton said that to be a writer is to dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird. Who knew that something as tiny as a hummingbird would cause such despair and exasperation and make me feel—at times—like such a failure? And yet…

There’s power in creating something that captivates another human.

When I read Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, Harper & Brothers, 1952) to my brother, he cried, and the tween that I was got it.

Words make us feel things. Words make us imagine ourselves into the skin of other people and even spiders.

Portland students and Jane excited about Planet Jupiter

Now, it moved me to hear that even two years later, those students remembered how much Jupiter wants her dad back, how hard it is for her to quit travelin’ on, to be vulnerable, to even sit still long enough for a little moss to grow.

What else is there?


Cynsational Notes

Planet Jupiter releases tomorrow from Greenwillow Books, a division of HarperCollins. Publishers Weekly said Planet Jupiter had “a playful yet introspective narrative” and called it an “engaging, empathic story” with “a host of quirky and appealing supporting characters.”


Kirkus Reviews described it as “a solid middle-grade family story” with vivid characters and fascinating urban village….holding readers’ interest throughout.”

Jane in Maji, photo by Jeri Candor

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country.

Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time. When she was in fourth grade, she went to boarding school in Addis Ababa.

By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. It took nearly 20 years to finally find a way – through her children’s books. Now she often speaks in schools and at conferences, sharing memories from her own childhood and bringing in things for the children to touch and taste and see and smell and hear from Ethiopia.

She is also a co-founder and member of the board of Ethiopia Reads that works to bring books and literacy to the children in Ethiopia. She is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, and the author of more than 30 books for young readers.