Intern Insights: How to Set Up a Halloween Book Project

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Problem

Like many writers, I have a lot of books.

One of my favorite social activities is going to a friend’s book signing and buying their fabulous book. I also love keeping up with the newly published children’s and young adult offerings and buying those amazing books.

This leads to a problem—the danger of being swallowed up by books.

Even if I buy some books in eBook format, I find myself wanting to share my favorite books. If I love a book, I want to give it to a kid or teen that will enjoy it. Amazing books should be read  – not hoarded on an eReader.

Also, because of health issues, I haven’t been able to eat candy for the past five years. So I was feeling weird giving out something on Halloween that made me so ill. Plus, I couldn’t eat the leftovers but didn’t want to throw them away either.

The Solution 

One day I read a Facebook post where someone mentioned giving out books for Halloween, instead of candy. I instantly knew this was something I wanted to do!

Giving out books was the perfect solution for me, combining all the things I love: books, sharing good books with kids and teens, and dressing up for Halloween.

A New Approach To Book Signings 

Instead of having the author write a note to me, I explain my Halloween book project at the signing and have the author write Happy Halloween on the title page.

This way a child gets a signed book from an author that celebrates the fact that they acquired the book on Halloween. It also makes for a fun conversation with the author at the signing.

Places to Buy Inexpensive Books 

Buying lots of books at book signings can get expensive, so to supplement my book supply I turned to local used-book sales. My local high school has an annual used-book sale in March. On the last day of the sale they sell a bag of books for $10 dollars. Now I stock up for Halloween books in March.

My library also has its own on-going Friends of the Library used-book sale on a couple of shelves in the library branch near me. They also run a couple used-book stores in nearby towns. I was able to round out books in the age levels that I was missing at those stores.

The Book Witch’s Count Down Sign

Now that I had a solid book supply, I was ready to figure out the Halloween details. I decided I would dress up as a witch to give out books since I already had a witch costume.

It was hard to predict how many kids might come to my block on Halloween though. Some years we’ve had a good number of kids and other years we’ve had only a few. To encourage more kids to venture to my block, I decided to do a little pre-Halloween advertising.

On October first I put up a countdown sign. I used the frame from an old political sign and covered it with a pillowcase (slit at the bottom) that I decorated using sharpies.

Each day I changed the number on my countdown with tape covered Post-it notes. This way word of mouth could spread and I would be sure at least a few kids would come to my house. It also made me commit to the project so I wouldn’t back out.

On Halloween day I changed the sign to say the Book Witch is coming from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Halloween Preparations

I bought Halloween-themed lights, a cauldron, and other props in October. I also looked over my collection to make sure that I had a good selection of picture books and novels.

My spouse suggested using hay bales as a way to display the books. On Halloween day, he moved the car to the street and set up the hay bales on the driveway.

I set up the books in piles on and around the hay, changed into my costume and was ready to be the Book Witch.

The Response

The kids and parents who came to my house loved this idea!

I had just one kid who told me they didn’t “do books,” even graphic novels. Most kids were thrilled to get to pick out a book, though, and even more excited when I showed them books by local authors.

One kid even said, “This is the best thing ever!”

Evening Wrap Up 

At the end of the night, I brought the few leftover books back inside, washed my costume, and packed up all my props. I put everything in a box labeled “The Book Witch” so it would be easier to do the project again the next year.

What I Plan To Do Differently This Year 

The hay bales didn’t work very well. The books kept sliding off them. This year I’m planning to put out tables with boxes and sort the books by age and format (picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, novels, etc.)

Last year, I also didn’t take any inventory ahead of time, so I had no idea how many books I gave out. I was afraid if I made the project too time consuming I’d never actually do it. So I was glad I didn’t make a list the first year.

I ran out of novels midway through the night, though, because kids tend to trick-or-treat in my neighborhood until ninth or tenth grade.

Turns out there is a big need for novels in my area, which I think is terrific!

This year I plan to create a list of all the books I give out and will check off what’s left at the end of the night. That way I’ll have a better feel for what books I’ll need next year.

I feel up to that challenge this year, since I’ve already done the project once, and know how much fun the night will be.

Other Halloween Book-Themed Ideas

A couple of writing friends have mentioned fun twists on my Book Witch idea. Laurel Abell suggested being a Book Fairy. Angele McQuade suggested setting up a haunted library and being either a ghost or zombie librarian. She wants to have some adult books for interested parents, too, and possibly also bookmarks/swag from author friends, We Need Diverse Books, and other bookish resources.

I love all these ideas and can’t wait to see a sea of photos on social media of the many, many types of Halloween book projects out there this year, and in the years to come!

Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, New Releases, Native Voices & Allies

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As an New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Cynsations blog, Cynthia is well known to many. But after reading her upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9), this summer, I believe readers gain more insight into her earlier years.

The novel draws in part on her experience as a Muscogee (Creek) teen growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City and as a reporter and, later, editor-in-chief on her high school newspaper.

The fictional, contemporary story follows Louise, a senior forced to reconcile how bigotry and racism are coming to a head in her community through her various roles as a tribal citizen, sister, student, reporter, friend and, most definitely, girlfriend.

Cynthia, I welcome you to Cynsations, your own wonderful creation!

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.

The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.

From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.

As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?

Pre-order a signed copy from BookPeople or order at your local store & request a signed bookplate & goodies!

Let’s start with the genre – you’ve crafted a contemporary, realistic young adult novel whereas your more recent novels have been YA fantasy. What prompted the return to a novel with a contemporary Native American teen and her family as the focus? 

I have this theory that where there are secrets, lies or regrets, there are stories. Think about it, in each case, there are stakes, there is nuance and competing interests. Conflict and reversals.

Hearts Unbroken began with a regret, as a novel-length apology to a high school boyfriend. I was an awkward teen (hey, I’m an awkward adult!). When I’m nervous or exhausted, I still babble a bit even though I can absolutely rock a podium with proper preparation.

Bottom line, I said the wrong thing, and I was sorry for decades. There’s a story in that and it’s not all in the book, which is only loosely inspired by what really happened.

How would you describe the story?

It’s a love story wrapped around a school-journalism story, written in an Indigenous style and sensibility. Or at least a hybrid style with strong Indigenous elements.

Enter to win 1 of 10 hardcovers!

The novel is thematically about speech, nodding to journalistic speech, religious speech, political speech, interpersonal speech, hate speech and microaggressions.

Or, put another way, it’s about speech, its blessings and its costs.

Early Native readers have mentioned to me that they see it as about empowering cultural voice, especially given the inclusion of Indigenous language in a daily-life reclamation context.

Big picture, the plot is infuriating and funny and representative and romantic. It’s also a little geeky. All of my stories are at least a little geeky. There’s also terrific kissing.

The narrative goes all in, fully submerging the reader in a Native teen perspective and suburban experience. The depiction of the family relationships is central. Meanwhile, the subplot, centered on the protagonist’s brother, (hopefully) offers more mainstream appeal.

Why did you decide to focus your protagonist on high-school journalism?

Again, personal experience. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and went on to major in news/editorial at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. As a student at The University of Michigan Law School, the First Amendment was a major focus of my studies. In my third and final year, I did an independent study on the right to speak (and the right not to) with Professor Lee C. Bollinger, who’s now the president of Columbia University in New York.

No, I didn’t set out to write Hearts Unbroken because news journalists are unfairly under attack right now, but I’m glad it’ll be out there for teens today. I hope it encourages at least a few readers to consider a career in reporting, editing, photo and/or videography.

You are always encouraging Native writers entering the industry. What craft and career advice do you have for those just starting out on this journey?

Get in touch with Native children’s-YA authors who’re agented and/or actively publishing. Read what’s already out there by members of our intertribal community. You’ll be able to gain an up-to-date, in-depth overview at Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Native authors at Kweli, 2016

Visit your local SCBWI regional chapter – attend a conference or workshop or both. They vary from place to place. Hopefully, it’ll be a fit. If not, look for another one that’s driveable.

Make an effort to attend Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

Embrace the study of craft. Seriously, commit. Enroll in workshops – there are a variety on and offline at various price points. Find a solid critique group or partner.

If you want to get an MFA in writing for young readers, write me and we’ll discuss whether it’s the right choice for you. See also my writer resources.

For those who’re allies, how can they support Native voices?

Foremost, be respectful of Native people and cultures in working with young readers. Assume that there are Native kids in your classrooms and communities. They’re everywhere, and so are their peers, who interact with them based on what they learn from the larger society, from you.

Set aside everything you picked up from Hollywood. Treat the political noise out of Washington, D.C. with a hefty amount of suspicion. Forget those construction-paper headdresses you made in first grade for Thanksgiving.

Chris Evans, Hemsworth & Pratt 

Are you used to thinking of yourself as the hero of the story? We routinely see the underrepresentation of some folks but also the overrepresentation of others.

Three of the Marvel superheroes in the last Avengers movie were played by white dudes named Chris. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.* And, hey, I enjoyed all of their performances. But no way around it, that’s seriously hefty representation.

Meanwhile, can you name any three on-screen Native girl or women characters from your entire history as a moviegoer? (Bonus points if they’re not animated.)

All of which is to say, when it comes to Native people, you may need to gut check your instinct to cast yourself as the savior.

Understand that you don’t know the history and are probably underestimating the complexity, not only regarding Native cultures but also Indigenous governmental structures and literary forms. The oral tradition is vital, but we have our own relationship to the written word, too.

What else? We’re a growing but small creative community with precious few gatekeepers of our own. Give us a chance to speak and not only about Native and diverse literature, though when we do talk about all that, listen carefully and reflect deeply.

Signal boost our new and existing releases. Advocate for our inclusion throughout the curriculum and book-events circuit, and integrate our titles not only in your Native Heritage Month celebrations but all year long.

Have you ever read a YA novel by a Native woman? Check out Apple in the Middle by debut author Dawn Quigley (North Dakota State University Press, 2018). In no particular order, also be sure to read books by Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Traci Sorell, Carole Lindstrom, Art Coulson, David A. Robertson, Cheryl Savageau, Lisa Charleyboy, Lee FrancisMonique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon StarrKate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise ErdrichCherie Dimaline, Daniel Vandever…. I could go on and on, and there are more writers and illustrators on the horizon. See my teacher and librarian resources.

* Just to geek out: Chris Evans also played The Human Torch. Additional white guys named Chris who played superheroes include: Christopher Reeve as Superman; Christian Bale as Batman; Chris O’Donnell as Robin; and I’m giving partial credit to Chris Pine, as Captain Kirk because he also played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and appeared in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Is there anything you’d like to say more broadly to writers from any underrepresented group?

In Memory: Nancy Garden

Offer private and public support to one another, especially those of you who’re bigger, more established names or members of groups with a stronger presence.

Years ago, I wrote a Horn Book article about Native humor and storytelling, and Nancy Garden sent in a letter to the editor in support. She was a very early, important voice in the LGBTQ writimg community and understood what it’s like when your numbers are small.

The fact that she took the time and made the effort? It meant the world to me. Still does.

You’ve been a leader in the conversation around diversity during both its ebbs and flows. What aren’t we talking about that we should be? 

From a writing craft perspective, we should focus more on secondary characters and intersecting subject matter. Every single writer must write across identity elements in those contexts. It’s not all about protagonists and the nonfiction focal topics.

More broadly, those of us in children’s-YA writing need to wrap our minds around the fact that we’ve been defaulting to the same white and male storytelling constructs for generations. More than that, those of us who’re writing teachers have been largely insisting upon them. Meanwhile, content-wise, let’s not settle for bite-sized nuggets of representation, tailored to mainstream comfort and expectations. Let’s embrace diversity for real.

This fall marks the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015, 2018). Could you tell us a little about that story?

Sure! It’s the cap to the Feral trilogy and crosses over its heroes with those from the Tantalize series, which is set in the same universe.

The governor of Texas has been kidnapped by demon snakes and furry hominids (kind of like Bigfoot) and the scoundrels have blamed our heroes, who’re shapeshifters, for the crime.

This is a fantastical construct in which shapeshifters battle bigotry and oppression parallel to what marginalized groups experience in our real world. So, yes, it’s funny and romantic and action-packed and super geeky, but it also speaks through metaphor to ongoing real-world dynamics.

Why did you first launch Cynsations, and how has it evolved over the years?

As I mentioned above, I’m a recovering journalist, and I always wanted to cover good news.

Pre-order Feral Pride in paperback.

(When writers are thinking about where their voice fits into the conversation of books, it’s worthwhile to consider what they enjoy doing and where their strengths lie.)

I entered the field at a time of low morale in the creative community. Publishers weren’t taking many chances on new voices. Celebrity books were all the rage. Madonna said on late-night television that she wrote a children’s book because there weren’t any good ones.

Meanwhile, I was trying to raise awareness of contemporary Native children’s books in a society that had decided Native people were all extinct. (I’m told that’s the answer Texas school children are supposed to provide on standardized tests to any questions asked about Native people: Extinct.)

So, I figured I’d get really 21rst century with it. Show by example that Native people have a present and future.

So, I fired up Cynsations to illuminate new voices, mid-career authors, living legends. Writing by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. The business of publishing. The writing life. Craft. The idea was to reach out to writers in a more-than-a-guidebook kind of way, in an encouraging and ongoing conversation.

What do you have coming up next?

My immediate focus is on middle grade projects. I’m especially excited about an anthology of stories by new and established Native voices, set around a contemporary powwow. As for my current novel writing, we’re talking middle grade speculative fiction. I also have another middle-grade realistic short story coming out in another anthology and a couple of poems that will be featured in picture books. Meanwhile, I’m putting thought into what my next project for teens might be.

Beyond that, I’m committed to supporting and signal boosting other voices – underrepresented and/or new and/or reinventing and/or long-established voices, too.

So, write on, Cynsational readers! I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes

Look for Cynthia’s upcoming YA release, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9). If you’d like a signed copy, you can pre-order it from her local independent bookstore, BookPeople, of Austin, Texas. Or, if you’ve already pre-ordered, request a signed bookplate and goodies. The paperback of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2) is available for pre-order, too.

Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

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.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, 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.

See also an interview with Traci from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “First, it needed to be colorful because it’s a four seasons book—so bright and not muted was what I pictured in mind. Second, the illustrations must be culturally accurate. I got my two criteria met and so much more!”

Cynsational Return

From Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sunset at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Welcome back to Cynsations! We hope you had a wonderful summer. My highlights included teaching at the residency of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and speaking at the annual convention of the American Library Association in New Orleans. Right now, I’m at LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat in Cook, Minnesota.

Here on the blog, we’ll once again be hosting insights from writers at every stage of their creative journey. We’ll look at books that cross borders, publishing as an industry and new releases. We’ll consider various aspects of a writing life.

This semester, we’re moving to more flexibility between four- and five-day posting weeks. But we’re sure you’ll still find plenty to read and reflect on.

Thank you to Cynterns Gayleen Rabakukk and Robin Galbraith for their ongoing efforts.

Thanks to all for returning to Cynsations. We hope you’ll find fruitful inspiration and information in the posts to come.

Survivors: Carolyn Crimi on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Carolyn Crimi.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My kneejerk reaction to that question is, “What success?”

So I suppose one way I’ve managed to stay in the game is redefining what that word means and how important it is to me.

Sometimes success means writing the next page, or figuring out a sticky plot problem, or exploring a new genre.

Those are the successes that get you through your tough days. Because there will be tough days, I know that now.

While I’ve won some nice awards, I consider the acceptance of my first novel (Weird Little Robots (Candlewick, 2019)) my biggest success simply because I honestly thought I couldn’t do it.

It was incredibly challenging, but I amazed myself by actually completing and then selling the dang thing. I’m still gobsmacked.

I was able to do that by telling myself that even if this novel was never accepted, writing it was worth it. As a picture book author, I found the idea of spending so much time on a longer project daunting. But what if I just did it for the joy of writing and completing a novel? Of really throwing myself into a project for…fun?

5/14, “Edge of Tomorrow”

I put all thoughts of selling it aside and dived in with my whole heart. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking, gut wrenching, and absolutely the highlight of my career.

I also have a motto, which I’m embarrassed to say I heard from Tom Cruise (yup!): “Keep your head down and do the work.”

If that means leaving Facebook for a while, do it. There will always be people more successful than you are. Big deal.

Just keep your head down and do the work.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I’d have a book signing party for my first book. I felt funny and shy about doing that way back in 1995, but I now realize I’ll never have a first book published ever again!

Overall, I’d celebrate more and agonize less.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Picture books are much, much, shorter than they used to be when I started out. Back in the ’90s, you could get away with a 900 word picture book. Nowadays they’re usually about 500 words or less.

I’m often asked to trim something down so much that I’m left with a manuscript that’s mostly dialogue.

While I love splashy, gorgeously illustrated picture books, I also love and appreciate lyrical language. And yes,I know that the reader will understand a lot of what’s going on the through the pictures, but a few well-chosen words that are fun to say can only add value.

I’m a bit tired of snark. It’s so easy to do, and seems to have been done to death lately. In this political climate, I’d like to see a little less snark and a little more kindness.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Save some money from your advance and hire a publicist. They are not cheap but they’re worth it. I plan on using one for Weird Little Robots, my first novel that’s coming out with Candlewick in 2019. (And yes, I will be throwing myself a huge party!)

Like most writers, I dislike marketing and promoting intensely. I’d much rather spend my time writing my next book.

Also? Know that there will be many ups and downs in this career. If you manage to climb back up after being in a writing funk, remember how you did it so that you can do it again. Because you will be in a funk again. And again.

Know that it happens to everyone and that the people who stick with it are the ones who have strategies for pulling themselves out of that muck.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Courage to write the story they’re aching to write.

Courage to try a new genre.

Courage to write about what scares them.

And joy!

There’s nothing like that fizzy feeling you get after a good writing day. I would send gallons of that feeling to all my friends if I could.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’d also like a healthy dose of courage to keep going in this topsy-turvy publishing environment.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.


Survivors: Barry Lyga on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Barry Lyga.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

When you first invited me to be a part of this amazing series, I warned you that my schedule meant I would have to come late in the process. The problem with that, of course, is that the folks who’ve come before me have made so many powerful points with such clarity and perspicacity that I fear I have nothing worth contributing.

Fortunately, that’s never stopped me from running my mouth anyway.

I wish I knew how I’ve made it this far. I mean, I have my suspicions and some ideas, but nothing confirmed. It’s not the sort of conversation you can have with people like editors and publishers without sounding like you’re fishing for a compliment. “Hey, why do you think I’m so long-lived? Feel free to use words like ‘genius,’ ‘compelling,’ and ‘devastatingly handsome’ in your response.”

I think that it comes down a few things, though.

First of all, I have an agent who is an absolute pit bull when it comes to my career. It takes a lot to make her give up on a project of mine.

We just recently made a deal to have one of my books turned into a movie in Korean — that deal took three years of her life and many, many midnight conference calls to Seoul. I would have given up somewhere in the first year. She never did.

She’s also willing to hang on for the ride when I decide to go from, say, literary coming-of-age fiction to superhero novels. It doesn’t faze her and she’s fine with it. She’s never tried to cram me into a box or constrain my writing.

Before I signed with her (13 years ago!), I said to her, “I may not always write this kind of book. Are you okay with that?” and she responded, “If you write it, I’ll sell it.”

She’s been as good as her word all these years. So my takeaway there is: agents matter. A lot.

Then there’s the writing itself. I’m not the greatest writer in the world, but I’m good enough that publishers seem interested in seeing what I can do for them. I’ve been given opportunities to try new things because Publisher X or Y looks at my work and thinks, “Hey, I wonder what he could do if we gave him some slack in the rope?”

And there’s me. I’m not the easiest person to work with, but I have a couple of things going for me: first, I’m a really fast writer. That’s a reputation that has, I believe, helped me immensely, especially for certain projects that require fast turnarounds.

Second, I think the things I tend to raise a stink over are things that publishers find it easy to either surrender on or work around.

Finally, at the risk of sounding immodest, I tend to turn in first drafts that don’t need a huge amount of revision. I don’t think I’ve ever gone beyond two rounds of revision and often only need one.

This makes it easier to work with me and means less stress for the publisher…which can compensate a lot for lackluster sales or my persnickety attention to details that no one else cares about.

And lastly, this: In a 12-year career, I’ve missed exactly one deadline. And even then, it was only by a week.

You add this all up and I think publishers look at me and think, “We know the book will come in on time, in decent shape, and it will sell a certain base level. Sometimes, he gets lucky and knocks one out of the park, but at the very least, his work usually gets good reviews.”

And in publishing, a wildly inconsistent industry where it’s anyone’s guess how a book will sell or how readers will react to it, that means a lot.

I’m not a sure thing, but I’m a relatively safe gamble. I’m a known quantity. And I’m professional AF.

As to bumps… Sometimes it feels like this business is all bumps, but that’s okay— smooth roads are boring. Truly, every single book I’ve published has had some kind of drama attached to it.

My very first book was supposed to get a great review by a well-known media personality in a highly regarded newspaper (how’s that for being cagey?).

It was dropped because it turns out the personality and I had a mildly personal connection that made him feel uncomfortable reviewing the book. That same book was supposed to get end-cap exposure at a major retail chain, but the person who issued the command to do so left the company…and the replacement never saw the memo.

Who knows what might have happened with that book if one or both of those things had happened?

And yet… And yet that book did really well! For a little while there, it was outselling Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005). (The one and only time in my life I can say I outsold John!)

The biggest bumps come from within, though, which sounded pithy when I first typed it, but looks oddly medical now.

Anyway, the second-guessing and stressing and constant internal battles over whether or not to push your publisher on this or that are the worst. They outweigh any external bumps in the road because they’re under your control and yet that doesn’t make them less potent — it makes them more potent.

You make your decision and then you realize that you can’t take it back and you’ll never really, truly know if it was the right decision, and you only have yourself to blame.

I was raised Catholic. Can you tell?

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

There’s a temptation to say “Nothing.” After all, even my mistakes led to my present situation, which — while not what I expected or planned for — is pretty damn good. And even though I can identify certain moments in retrospect where I wince at my past self, who’s to say that “fixing” those moments wouldn’t somehow backfire and put me in a worse situation than the one I’m currently in?

Still, let’s respect the question and think on this. Truthfully, I think the biggest thing I would do differently is this: I would have either not written my third book — Hero Type (HMH Books, 2009) — or I would have written it very differently.

It’s not that it’s a bad book and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that after Boy Toy (HMH Books, 2007), I had a certain reputation and there were certain expectations.

Boy Toy sold horribly. I have to be sure to mention that — it just absolutely tanked in the market. But it got a lot of critical attention and I didn’t know that it had tanked until a year later, when I got my first royalty statement.

So, I had this rep as the guy who wrote a very ballsy book about male victims of molestation, a graphic, unsparing account. And I followed it up with a political treatise, which is not what people wanted or expected.

The problem was that I was very much in a mode of thinking that went like this: If I do what people expect, then I’m falling into a trap in which I have to care more about what the reader wants than what I want. And that means that I end up in this very special hell in which I’m trying to second-guess not just readers, but the readers of a year or two hence, when the book I’m writing will come out.

So I decided to “teach” readers to expect the unexpected from me. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have made that third book so radically different from the second.

I might also have not been quite so prolific. Don’t get me wrong — I love my books and I’m glad I wrote them.

But one time I was bemoaning that no one seemed to be excited about my new book and my wife said, “You had a new book out nine months ago, too. You never went away, so people don’t get the chance to miss you.”

There’s a truth to that. If you have books coming out constantly, well, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it sometimes midwives apathy.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why? 

I think YA is in the process of changing from marketing category-cum-genre into a political movement. I can’t think of another example of this sort of transmogrification in the art-space and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

That’s right now, though. Over the past dozen years, I’ve watched as YA went from “no one’s watching — let’s have fun!” to “Everyone is watching. Let’s do whatever it takes to make lots of money.”

It’s very weird. My first publisher went to great pains to tell me that she didn’t care what my book sold when it came out — she cared about what it would sell over ten or twenty years. She wanted something with that sort of longevity.

I think publishers still want that kind of longevity, but they want a big opening weekend, too. They want a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s very different than how it used to be.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year? 

Find a level of social media engagement that is sustainable for you in the long term.

It’s easy to get caught up in the relative fame of social media in the beginning and to spend way too much time on it…which then sets people up with the expectation that this is how you will always be on social media.

But the fact of the matter is that social media is like anything else, where you get bored or you drift away for a little while, which inevitably disappoints people.

Also: Come up with a plan for a newsletter that is, again, sustainable in the long-term. I’ve launched and relaunched mine something like four times.

I haven’t figured out the formula yet for timeliness and interest combined with what I’m capable of doing on a regular basis.

Lastly: Enjoy this! This is your dream come true (in part, at least), to launch a publishing career.

There are a million disappointments coming your way, but try to bat them aside and enjoy the many, many thrilling and unexpected surprises that will surface as well.

It’s easy to get distracted by the business stuff, and I’m not saying to ignore that — you do so at your peril! — but make time to sit back and bask in the fact that, yes, this is happening!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Great books. Diverse books. Books that challenge. An industry that finds a way to support smaller titles that may not ever sell in the millions, but deserve a bigger audience than what they have.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Little, Brown, 2017

Is it crass to say “More sales?” Probably. But at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Not merely from a gross money standpoint, but rather from the perspective of proving to publishers that it’s okay to keep taking a risk with me.

Yeah, every book sold is money in my pocket, but more importantly it says, “Hey, keep publishing this guy!”

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to keep publishing books.

I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me — they’re going to be really boring if I can’t tell people stories.

Oh, and a good night’s sleep. That would be awesome.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: Lisa Wheeler on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Lisa Wheeler.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I think the biggest bump (aside from pre-publication days when I was gathering all my rejections) came during the recession.

I know I am not alone in this.

During that time, I had one editor retire and two leave for other houses. This made selling a manuscript even more difficult, and it seemed everything I wrote for about five years (except for the Dino-Sports series with CarolRhoda which continued throughout this time period) got rejected.

I was fortunate to have that series during that dry spell because it gave me deadlines and I still felt like a “real” writer.

I also took a writing job for Pearson. I wrote four short stories for use in our state testing program. These were pay-per-project, but I didn’t think twice about taking the job. The money was decent and it kept my brain occupied while also allowing me to be creative.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t stressed so much. I wish I would’ve believed more in myself and my abilities.

I tend to turn inward when things go wrong and point fingers of blame at myself, my talent, etc.

In truth, looking back, lots of writers had trouble selling during this time. It was a market thing, combined with being orphaned at three publishing houses.

I should have listened to my agent who kept assuring me that things would turn around. He was right!

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I have seen picture books get shorter and flashier.

I used to tell the folks who participated in my Picture Book Boot Camps that they had to keep their word count at 1000 or less. Now I advise keeping it below 500.

I also think that social media has played a huge part in making some books very successful. People are celebrities now because they have an online presence.

Twenty years ago, the internet was a new world and I never foresaw how it would change our world.
I am uncomfortable with all the social media showy marketing stuff and actually have mini panic attacks when I try to sit in on workshops about this topic. It’s all so out of my comfort zone.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Hire someone to handle your social media.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

As always, I wish them successful careers and many book sales.

I also hope that children’s books will continue to be made with real paper.

With Deb Aronson and Lisa Rose at Book Beat in Oak Park, MI.

I love that this medium allows families to take their eyes away from the screens, experience the feel and smell of real printed books, see art that isn’t backlit, slow down, ask questions, discuss story. . .oh, all things I recall from reading aloud to my kids when they were small.

Such a precious memory!

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Like I tell the kids, I will continue to write books until my brain or body breaks down. I hope neither thing happens anytime soon.

I love my job!

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: David Lubar on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Revising in a Nazareth, PA; learn more about David Lubar

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Considering that I started trying to build a writing career when I was fresh out of college in 1976, sold my first short story in 1978, and didn’t sell a book until 1995, I think canyons and armed fortresses might be a more appropriate metaphor than bumps.

I guess “don’t give up” would be a pretty obvious lesson gleaned from that chronology.

One key to my success and longevity is that I married a woman who is far more tolerant of my quirks than I deserve, and was not afraid of the bumpy ride that comes with the freelance life.

(Craft note: I’ve written a dozen different versions of this sentence, and none sounds right. If this were for a book, I’d spend another half hour on it. But I’m trying to use my time more wisely, so I’m going to let it stand as is and essentially appear in public with food stains on my shirt.)

(Craft tip: If you can’t fix something, point it out.)

(Style tip: Avoid excessive parentheticals.)

She knows that when I’m staring out the window, I’m hard at work. As testimony to her awesomeness, if I show up at any meeting or conference without her, the first question I get is “Where’s Joelle?”

I’m tolerated. She’s loved.

As for aspects of my success that I can actually take credit for, I think the work ethic I was thrust into when I was programming video games, starting back in the 1980s, made a difference. A sixteen-hour day was fairly normal, as was a seven-day work week. (I don’t recommend this.)

So, working on a manuscript for eight hours feels like a half day. Though now that I’m settling into my sixties, I’m actually trying to work authentic half days once in a while. (Somebody has to sweep the neighborhood streets clear of Pokémon, for the sake of the children.)

I think my other advantage is that I love humor in almost all its forms, and this spills into my writing. I want to make people laugh. I want to delight my readers with wordplay, unexpected connections, and the prose equivalent of Rube Goldberg machines, where actions and events generate explosive endings.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would have invested a lot of time finding the right agent. I would have toned down my leanings toward quirkiness and tried to reach a broader market. I think I could have done that without sacrificing my artistic integrity. Though artistic integrity can be one of those things you clutch out of habit, especially when you are young.

Maybe a purer answer was that I should have been less stubborn, at times, when dealing with editorial suggestions. Though I don’t regret the times when I walked away from a deal to preserve my vision for a book. (I think I just contradicted myself.)

Honestly, as much fun as it is to try to revise the past, I think if I did things differently, I would have just shifted to a new set of triumphs and tragedies.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The top things that come to mind are eBooks, the consolidation of publishing houses, and the transition of YA from an age-market category to everybody’s hobby.

Honestly, there are times when I can talk (or write) at length about my thoughts on any topic. But right now, I don’t seem to have any insights or deep thoughts.

And, even more honestly, my insights about such things aren’t necessarily all that astute or interesting.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

If I were talking to me, I’d probably say, “Don’t get too frantic about using social media for promotion. You suck at it. Seriously. Use it for fun, if you must, but if you really want to spread the word, hit the road, do school visits, wangle invitations to school media and reading conferences.”

And, to repeat advice Bruce Coville gave me more than 20 years ago when I asked about the best way to promote my book, “Write another book.”

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

As crucial as literacy is, and as much as reading shapes the citizens of tomorrow, I wish everyone would take a step back once in a while, draw a deep breath, and remind themselves that at the core of all of this there should be pleasure, joy, delight, amusement, and even a bit of humble realization that we are both wizards and fools.

David with fellow Tor author/Pokémon player Alan Gratz

We create things that have never been, but we do it in a universe a billion times larger than we can even imagine.

On balance with that, as minuscule as we are, when we make a moment, a day, or a school year better for a young reader, or give an educator a tool to reach a student who thinks she hates reading, we loom larger than we can ever know.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’m really having a struggle coming up with the perfect words for my tombstone. I’m pretty sure that will outlast anything else I write, unless vandals do a bit of revision by means of sledge hammers. I’ve come close to finding what I want.

I had one killer epitaph that popped into my mind while I was doing something else. It was perfect. But I neglected to write it down, and it escaped. I think there’s still time to work on it, but this is one deadline that’s definitely written in stone.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: Daniel Kraus on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Daniel Kraus.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

The the only bumps of note have revolved around me figuring out what kind of life I wanted to live inside of publishing.

It only took me one book to realize that I’m not someone who’s going to make a second career of attending conferences and schools, and doing every single blog interview on offer, and so forth.

I’ve seen friends go down that route and be swallowed by it, good writers who hammer and hammer away at so-called promotional opportunities when they could be writing a second or third book.

That’s where I’m comfortable: at the desk. You might consider me prolific, but I see myself as someone who decided where to focus his energies and has kept to that.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Learn more.

There are two minor compromises I made with my first book that still irk me. One was a structural thing and one was a single sentence that I didn’t think needed to be there. They hardly ruin the book, but to this day, they bother me. And so I don’t do that anymore.

I’m entirely open to editorial suggestion, but I’ll never agree to something I don’t believe in. It’s not worth it if it’s still going to still be depressing to me when I’m old.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

There have been the obvious demographic shifts that, while still small, have been encouraging to see. Beyond that, I don’t see a lot of change.

The best-seller list is still a mixture of great books and middling junk food. The most daring books still rarely get noticed. The pervading opinions that YA lit has to offer a positive message or avoid immorality are still boringly in place.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Learn more.

I probably did some large-group events where there were only white authors. I wouldn’t do that today.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

A lot of lip-service kudos are given to books and characters that occupy moral gray areas, but I still feel like a lot of adults who read YA (not the kids, mind you) can’t really take it when it gets hot in that particular kitchen. Their what-about-the-children alarms go off.

That’s not a great environment for innovation or expression, and certainly not transgression.

In an area of publishing that likes to think of itself as open-minded, it often feels fairly closed-minded in this regard. This kind of hesitancy, however, does present prime opportunities for small presses and self-publishing, and so I expect those two areas of the lit world to continue to thrive and become even more important.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Now available! Learn more.

Time. I need much more of it. I have a dozen projects I want to write and the fact that I won’t get to them all before I die — yes, I’m thinking about death — has really started to hit home.

I also want to help writers who are talented but maybe not well known for a variety of reasons, maybe because of where they come from or what they choose to write about.

This kind of assistance is largely done quietly, behind the scenes, and is almost always more gratifying than publishing a book myself.

Cynsational Notes

Why Do You Write Such Dark YA Fiction? by Daniel Kraus from Cynsations. Peek: “Sure, you’ll lose readers who find your story irredeemably smutty/horrific/ludicrous, but those readers who have been searching for someone who writes as if possessed will recognize you instantly as one who fears nothing but mediocrity.” See also New Voice Daniel Kraus on The Monster Variations.

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

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.

Cynsations Intern: Robin Galbraith on Giving Yourself Permission to Write

Would-Be Kid Writer Robin

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.

During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.

“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”

I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.

However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary‘s Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller?

Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her Teacher

I was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading.

 My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent.
I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.

Reading: The Gateway to Writing

In high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.

A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.

My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.

Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.

Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old.

Rules for Recovering TV Addicts

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:

  • I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. 
  • I can only watch pre-recorded shows. 
  • I can only watch one hour of TV a day.

These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my attention? The characters? The dialog? The plot?

A Woman’s Place Is in the Study

Tragically, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was only 52 years old and died in 2012 when she was just 69. As I grieved for my mom’s shortchanged future, I thought about the lessons I was teaching my two kids.

Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too.
I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.

My writing wasn’t showing off, it was modeling good habits.

Techniques of the Selling Writer

While my stubborn streak pushed me to finish a draft of a middle grade novel, my next obstacle was learning to write well. The feedback I received from my critique group was politely positive, but I began to suspect they were holding back their criticism. I didn’t push for more honest feedback because I was afraid they’d tell me I’d never be a writer.

Ten years after I had been writing, I got up the courage to submit my work for a professional critique at a local SCBWI writing conference. My critiquer did not have any problems with politeness; she was blunt. I was taken aback at first, then I realized this was good. She took my writing seriously. She didn’t say I had no business writing. She told me what I needed to improve as if this was possible.

One of the conference speakers recommended a book on how to write scenes. I ordered Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) as soon as I got home. It was a 300-page how-to manual on writing scenes with showing, not telling.

 On my first reading, I was overwhelmed. On my second reading, I took detailed notes. For the third reading, I applied the principles to a fan-fiction story for the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”

My critique group loved my new writing style!

I now had proof that you can learn to write with hard work.

Take Joy

Just when I became comfortable with writing, I fell ill with a series of baffling symptoms that left me practically bedridden. I visited doctor after doctor, desperate to figure out what was wrong. In 2014, a physician figured out my complicated set of thyroid, parathyroid, and autoimmune issues and scheduled surgery to remove my parathyroid tumor.

That same month, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study writing for children and young adults. The lesson I had learned from my mom was that life is too short to “know your place.”

When I studied at VCFA I met an entire community that believes in writing. My first advisor had me read Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006). Instead of seeing writing as a struggle, Yolen sees working on craft as a pleasure, an attitude that changed the way I looked at writing.

Four semesters later, I read my humorous young adult short story for my graduate reading to a sea of laughter and was glad I had given myself permission to write.

You matter. Your stories matter, and the journey you take to learn to write them down will be the adventure of your lifetime!

Guest Post: Carmela A. Martino on Pulling a Novel From the Drawer & Playing By Heart

By Carmela A. Martino

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If I’d known how long and difficult the path to publication would be for my new young adult novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing, 2017), I might never have started down this road. The journey began when I set out to write a picture book biography of a little-known 18th-century female mathematician.

Long before entering the Vermont College MFA program, I’d been a computer programmer, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science. Yet I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history.

Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was fluent in seven languages, some say by age eleven. Later, she wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic arithmetic to the new-at-that-time science of calculus. The textbook brought her acclaim throughout Europe.

Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. 
After Candlewick published my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola in 2005, I submitted the biography to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Agnesi’s life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. 
She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. The Agnesi sisters both struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.

I took my editor’s advice and began writing a historical romance based on the Agnesi sisters. Researching not only their lives but the culture of Milan in the 1700s was rather daunting. 

I finally finished a rough draft in January 2009. 
The story was from the younger sister’s point of view. Having changed the family name to Salvini, my original title was “The Second Salvini Sister.” After numerous revisions, I finally sent a polished manuscript to my Candlewick editor in September 2011. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 SCBWI Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to Playing by Heart.

The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.

The contest success meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel.

The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her religious devotion and service to the poor, I thought a Catholic publisher might be interested. 

As it turned out, not all the publishers were Catholic, but none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.

Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!

Before signing a contract, I did my due diligence regarding the publisher. 

Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but, as it says on their website: “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.” 
After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract.

My experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books).

For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.

When I held a copy of Playing by Heart for the first time, it really didn’t matter that it was published by a small press.

The book was beautiful.

That’s when I decided it had been worth the journey after all.

Cynsational Notes
See an interview with Carmela’s editor, Dawn Carrington, at Teaching Authors.
Carmela Martino’s middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick, 2005) was her creative thesis for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. The novel went on to be named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.”

After the novel went out of print, she reissued a new edition with a revised cover and a Discussion Questions section. The new edition recently received a Catholic Press Association Book Award in the “Children’s Books” category.

She founded TeachingAuthors, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers, with several fellow Vermont College alums. She has taught writing classes at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL since 1998. Her current co-bloggers include alums Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and Bobbi Miller
Carmela’s credits for young readers also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). She will have two articles in the 2018 CWIM: “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better” and an interview with bestselling author Carolyn Crimi, a member of Carmela’s Vermont College class.