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

Deborah Halverson

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We work hard to get to know our characters.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click image to enlarge

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

Guest Post: Melanie J. Fishbane on What Maud Taught Me

Melanie at Mabel’s Fables in Toronto.

By Melanie J. Fishbane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This month, Maud (Penguin, 2017) is releasing in paperback. And I feel one thing…Gratitude.

In this unstable publishing climate, not all books go to paperback.

It isn’t the natural progression it once was.

My publisher—Penguin Random House of Canada and its imprint, Penguin Teen—continue to support the book with digital ads and worked hard on the paperback edition.

It looks beautiful.

I’m also grateful for what the Maud taught me about the process of publication, of having something now out in the world for people to read and how to step into one’s “author self”—whatever that is supposed to mean for you.

Grateful because I had hoped that the book would become part of the conversation about Montgomery, to encourage new readership and it has. To inspire readers to “keep climbing” to whatever goal they want to pursue.

Grateful because I’ve been able to travel and talk to people about Montgomery across North America, people who didn’t know of their personal connections to her, or about her struggles as a woman to be educated and get published in late 19th century Canada.


Grateful because through the wonders of online shipping, Maud has been read in Canada and the United States, and has found its way to Australia, Japan, Poland and Brazil.

I discovered one day that it was being reviewed on an Italian blog!

These things are extraordinary to me—that someone cared enough to want to read my book and have it shipped across the world.

Grateful because Maud connected with young readers in ways I never could have anticipated.

One reader I met at a book signing later contacted me to do an interview for a book report she was doing for school and, later, told me she received an “A!”

Grateful because a group of teen readers from Saskatchewan told me that they had passed the book around and had questions about what happened to my characters, about L.M. Montgomery and her books, and where they could find out most of these details. (I did have these things on my website, but it was lovely to see that the book inspired such passionate questions!)

When I was signing at a bookstore in PEI, a tourist from Croatia had heard from the woman who runs the birthplace that I was going to be there and had her parents drive her to Summerside to meet me. 

Melanie signing books at the L.M. Montgomery Conference.

And grateful because last June at the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference, a graduate student spoke about Maud for 20 minutes—giving me permission to stay in the room while she did. And she said nice things! The book is now included in her master’s thesis. (I hope she’ll let me read it!)

It has been an honor to connect to these people. It was nervous-making putting a creation out into the world, having no control over what it was going to do. But Maud has shown me that when you allow things to unfold, beautiful things emerge.

Cynsational Notes

Author photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Reporter Melanie J. Fishbane covers Canadian publishing for Cynsations. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in History from Concordia University.

With more than seventeen years’ experience in children’s publishing, she lectures internationally on children’s literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire.

Melanie also loves writing essays and her first one, “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt:” Writing as Therapy in L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted,” is included in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). And her short story, “The New Girl,” was published in the Zoetic NonBinary Review.

Her first YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, was published by Penguin Teen in 2017. The novel was featured on the Huffington Post’s Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading and winner of Hamilton Public Library’s Next Top Novel.

Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin.

Follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane and like her on Facebook. Read an article by Melanie on Earning & Celebrating Success.

New Voice: Adrienne Kisner on Dear Rachel Maddow

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Adrienne Kisner is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and a hilarious fellow classmate, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her funny and heart-wrenching debut YA novel,  Dear Rachel Maddow (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Brynn Harper’s life has one steadying force—Rachel Maddow.
She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project—and actually getting a response—Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. 



Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out. 


Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s archnemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. 


When she runs for the position, the knives are out. 


So she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?

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

I think the worst moments of my publishing journey were figuring out that the first manuscript (and second and third) I wrote wasn’t going to get an agent or probably ever see the light of day.


I’m not embarrassed by any of my earlier work. I spent years and countless hours on something that I hoped someone else would read, only to realize that no one will ever see it beyond a handful of friends who were too polite to refuse. That was rough. But it taught me that I can finish a manuscript and move on. That’s just what you have to do.

I have a spiritual advisor who says, “That’s the writing life. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”

And it’s true. I did. She’s always right and it’s annoying.

The best moment was probably when Rachel Maddow and Susan Mikula (her partner) sent me flowers. This is notable particularly because I’ve only received flowers about twice before in my life.

Dear Rachel Maddow won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and somehow she got wind of it.

They weighed about ten pounds, but I carried them around my campus and forced everyone to admire them.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

 You can start writing your book any time. You should write it, in fact. You can finish it, too.

You aren’t too old or too young. You have the time. We always have time, us writers. We say we don’t. The kids need this, the day job needs that, the house is on fire, the car just got sucked under inky black waves by writhing tentacles, blah blah blah. Whatever.

 It will always be something. But if you really want to write, have to write to survive, you will.

Do it in ten minute spurts every other Thursday. Those Thursdays add up.

Just write the damn book already.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I teach composition and creative writing. (I’m also a residence hall director, but that is another story…) I like putting up my editor and copyeditor’s notes on the PowerPoint to demonstrate how even after six drafts there are approximately forty-seven errors on every one of my pages.

Writing is a journey. Revision is a slog backwards through that journey. How can I really hold typos against a student? I cannot. I circle them in cheerful purple ink, mind you. But my own process has made me more humble.

 I also now pick books to teach that I can rant about, both good and bad. I’ve become a more informed ranter.

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

I think getting an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts made all the difference for me. I’ve read on advice blogs and in craft books that one does not need an MFA to write. Certainly I think that’s true.

But after a few years of writing, trying to find an agent, and getting nowhere, I was tired and ready to quit. I needed to be plugged into something bigger than myself, an instant community of writers and scholars around whom I could bask in the shared love of words.

I made amazing, supportive friends and had my butt kicked in terms of craft by brilliant mentors. VCFA flipped a switch in my head in terms of not only getting my ideas down, but taking a step back and revising the crap out of them. Many, many times.

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly said,

“Revealing Brynn to be an individual with realistic insecurities, biases, and complexities, Kisner playfully explores the very human manner in which a stranger like Maddow might come to feel like a friend and confident.”

Adrienne Kisner has lived her entire “adult” life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy.

She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Dear Rachel Maddow was awarded a 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

Author Interview: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Storyteller & Author

Tim Tingle (right) with his son, Dr. Jacob Tingle,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On April 7, 2018, author Tim Tingle received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Named in honor of an author who served as Oklahoma Center for the Book‘s first president, the award is presented annually  for a body of work contributing to Oklahoma’s literary heritage.

Congratulations, Tim! What a wonderful honor. Tell me what it was like getting that news. 

I have attended several Oklahoma Center for the Book Award ceremonies, as Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006) won Best Children’s Book, and Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Punto, 2005) and House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Punto, 2014) were finalists in their categories.

I was there when a dear and admired friend of mine, Rilla Askew, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I received the phone call letting me know I was selected as the 2018 recipient, my first response was disbelief. I had studied most of the previous American Indian recipients in lit courses
at grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU). “I am so far from that level,” I thought to myself.

When I hung up the phone I decided that I still have maybe 15 years of writing ahead of me (I’ll be 70 years old in November), and I will dedicate the remainder of my life to earning this award—the award now hanging next to my fireplace in Canyon Lake, Texas.

I called my son first, Dr. Jacob Tingle of Trinity University. I had been asked to select someone to introduce me at the awards ceremony, and Jacob agreed.

Roadrunner Press, my publisher of the How I Became A Ghost series (2015-), purchased a table of eight for my family and friends. I invited Dr. Geary Hobson, a Cherokee poet and my lead professor during my OU days, and his wife, Dr. Barbara Hobson, former Chair of Native American Studies there.

My son told of riding with me one summer in the Maxwell House Coffee truck, as I repaired coffee machines at small town restaurants in the Texas Hill Country. He shared anecdotes I would never have remembered, and how my work ethic and respect for working people was evident in all that I did.

During my acceptance speech, I told of Dr. Hobson, and how without his encouragement I would never have written a single book. His wife later told me he sat at the table and cried.

The circle of friends that evening will always remain very special to me, and among them was Gene Burks of Dallas. He spotted Doc Moore and I telling stories at Six Flags Over Texas in 1994 and invited me to share Choctaw stories in the Garland school district, where he was on the school board. That was the beginning of my full-time storytelling career, and eventually lead to the publication of Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2005).

I closed my speech by singing “Shilombish Holitopama, Amazing Grace” in Choctaw, and George Nigh, a former governor of Oklahoma and the evening’s emcee, sang in English from his chair on the stage behind me.

Governor George Nigh with Tim at Oklahoma Book Awards,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Which came first? Your work as a storyteller or as a writer? What have you done to hone both crafts? 

I began writing when I was in the second grade at South Houston Elementary School. I had read several Hardy Boys books (1927-2005) and listened to my Uncle Kenneth tell backyard stories about my Choctaw Mawmaw’s tough life growing up in the racial quandary of 1890s Oklahoma.

My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, tapped her knuckles on the desk and said, “Everyone listen. Free time, so pull out your Big Chief tablets, your crayolas, and draw. I will be grading tests.”

Photo by Lisa Reed

I decided to go with “free time” rather than crayolas, and I began a screenplay for “Zorro” (1957-1959), my favorite television show. Mrs. Palmer spotted me, snatched the unfinished first page, and tossed it in the trash. “Never do that again, not in my class,” she said. So I didn’t.

For forty years, I kept my writing to myself and told oral stories. But before that, in my mid-twenties, I went from college basketball player to modern dance soloist with the Michael Sokoloff Ensemble, a touring group back when the National Endowment for the Arts was well-funded.

As I moved with the rhythm when I danced, I now write with my headset and music. For the past decade my soundtrack has been The Chieftains, an Irish folkish group.

Doc Moore and I co-wrote three Texas ghost story books, published by Texas Tech University Press, before I decided to focus on Choctaw history and stories, with fictional twists and turns.

Most of the stories in my first book, Walking the Choctaw Road, were originally oral stories, performed at festivals and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico.

At the age of 50, I realized my oral stories would be buried with me someday, so I took a hiatus from performing and attended graduate school in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where I earned an M.A. degree and completed Walking The Choctaw Road.

I feel that the spoken word experience gives strength to the first person narrative, and use it often in my writing.

Tim at Sequoyah’s Cabin with Fort Smith high school teachers
who were teaching House of Purple Cedar in their classrooms. 

You have two more books out this year in the No Name young adult series, No More No Name (2017), A Name Earned (2018) and Trust Your Name (2018)(7th Generation). What gave rise to the character of Bobby Byington, a Choctaw basketball player? 

See Kirkus Reviews

When my editor called and said she very much enjoyed the premise to “No Name,” the original book in the series, but “the idea of a boy digging a hole in his backyard and living in it when his alcoholic father was home—that’s so unrealistic.”

I took a deep breath before answering.

“If my big brother were still alive, he could tell you. That’s how we survived. We dug a hole in the field behind our house and dragged an old junkyard door over it. My dad never found our hiding place.”

My brother played basketball for the University of Houston Cougars, along with Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler, and I played junior college basketball on a scholarship.

We were also warned by my grandmother never to tell any of our friends we were Choctaw, for fear of what might someday happen.

The racism and bullying in the No Name series were always just around the corner of my youth.

The long-awaited sequel to your award-winning middle grade novel, How I Became A Ghost, is finally here. Any pressure in writing When A Ghost Talks, Listen (Roadrunner, Aug. 7, 2018), knowing how well the first one was received? What challenged you the most in writing this second book? Will there be more books in this series? 

I so love the characters of this series that popping on my headset, flipping the music button, and entering the world of shape-shifting panthers, rattlesnakes and soaring ghosts was and is a joy.

Pre-order When a Ghost Talks, Listen 

I know rattlesnake Stella. She is based on an elderly Choctaw friend of mine, Stella Long, who gave me permission to use her name. I later told her she was on the cover of the book, and imagine her surprise when she saw her “rattlesnake-self” grinning back at her.

I have maybe eight shelves of Choctaw and Southeastern Indian books surrounding my writing desk, fiction and nonfiction both.

I spent a few years researching the facts behind book two, including two trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The questionable death of Chief and United States Army General Pushmataha was a strong inspiration in the writing process. I still feel him standing over me, watching, nodding, and wiping away a few tears.

I do plan on continuing the How I Became A Ghost series, with a World War I Choctaw Codetalker book (in book two, we learn that Choctaw ghosts can time-travel) and a book moving back and forth from the Trail of Tears to the Irish Famine in the future.

As I learned during a trip to Ireland a few years ago, “historical” accounts of the causes and death tolls related to the Famine are as false as most popular Trail of Tears narratives.

I hope to keep Isaac alive (as alive as a ghost can be) for at least another decade, accompanied by his bilingual dog, Jumper.

Tim speaking at the Smithsonian

Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you in 2019 or beyond that you’d like to share?

Yes, I’ll have two new book releases in 2019.

From Lee & Low comes Stone River Crossing, a 250-page middle grade novel based on my picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (Cinco Puntos, 2008). The narrative follows the family of escapees from a pre-Civil War plantation. As they are rescued by nearby Choctaws, the battle ensues over “ownership.”

What the western world labels as magic realism, but what we Choctaws recognize as everyday life abounds.

Also, the first book in a series from Scholastic Press arrives in 2019, Timmy the Choctaw Detective and the Graveyard Treasure, a middle grade novel of a twelve-year-old youngster, our narrator, who sees himself as the best detective in town.

The lead detective of the local police force gives Timmy his first cell phone for his birthday, and they become partners in crime solving.

Timmy’s neighbor is Doc, an elderly man living by himself with advancing dementia, accompanied by acute observational skills.

Timmy discovers that Doc’s maid is also an aide at a nearby nursing home, and part of a gang that steals only from the elderly. And where does the gang bury their ill-begotten loot? In the centuries-old mausoleum of the town cemetery. And when does he make this discovery? After midnight, of course, with a gang member looking over his shoulder.

Wow, Tim, you’ve already got me looking forward to 2019 and these great books you’ve written. We appreciate the preview.

Cynsational Notes

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.

He has twice been honored with the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for How I Became a Ghost in 2014, and again in 2016 for House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos, 2013).

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency.

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, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story 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.

Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 


A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 


But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 


Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She’s dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 


She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 


Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 


Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress–serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called “We All Shine On.”

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, “Give Me Some Truth” was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 


Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.

Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.


You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?



Three things, really, feel important to me.

  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.

I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.

  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.


I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.

  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.

Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.



Cynsational Notes



Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:

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, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story 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.

New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 


How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 


Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 


With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

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



I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?


I did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.


What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?


One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?



Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”


Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. 

New Voice: Nic Stone on Dear Martin

William C. Morris Award Finalist

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nic Stone is the debut author of Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


Reading books written for young readers! I didn’t pick up a YA book until I was 26. That first foray was The Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008), and I read the entire trilogy over the course of five days.

That then started a dystopia kick for me, and I read the first two books of the Divergent  series by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011) and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2011). Then I picked up my first John Green book, and that was that.

There was something about the Young Adult category that spoke to me in ways literary fiction hadn’t, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that YA wasn’t a thing when I was a teen, so there was this hole in my reading life.

Now I write for the kids like me—specifically the African American ones—who are still underrepresented in the YA sphere.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The first time I went through professional copyedits, there was a note about the spelling of a particular curse word. I’d spelled the first part of it (because of course it was a compound curse word) “motha” and the note said something to the effect of “I think this should be ‘mutha*****’ because this way it looks like ‘MOTHa*****’. Okay?” I will never ever forget this note.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

The answer to this changes depending on the book I’m working on, but for Dear Martin  there were five specific ones:

1. A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2011), which is the book that helped me to see that I could play with various storytelling formats in one single novel;

2. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2014), which helped me settle into my black boy character’s voice;

3. Grasshopper Jungle  by Andrew Smith (Dutton, 2014), which loosened me up a bit and made it clear that irreverence is an okay thing in books written for teens;

4. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (Atheneum, 2011), which was so beautiful and lyrical and helped me find my prose rhythm; and

5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2009) which showed me the power of reaching into the heart of a story and keeping the plot from taking over.

These books will always hold a special place on my shelf.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

For me, this part of the journey has been the most surprising part and it’s largely because of the way the world is changing with regard to author visibility and accessibility. It’s weird to me that people want to see me and hear from me and connect with me as a person above and outside of the work I create.

Right now, I’m in the process of connecting my writer self with my selfie-taking self and connecting two of my creative outlets: books and makeup. Working on a concept for a Youtube channel, actually. Stay tuned!



Cynsational Notes

In a starred review of Dear Martin, Booklist says, “Teens, librarians, and teachers alike will find this book a godsend in assisting discussions about dealing with police, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of King’s work. Vivid and powerful.”

Dear Martin was named a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award by the American Library Association.

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one.

After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to  the U.S. to write full-time.

Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.

New Voice: Liara Tamani on Calling My Name

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Liara Tamani is the debut author of Calling My Name (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and it deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. 


Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I started writing Calling My Name to explore and heal the wounds of my teenage self. 

Like Taja, the protagonist of Calling My Name, I grew up in a very loving and religious family. My family was always in church—Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday services, Vacation Bible School, Church conventions—you name it, we were there. Also like Taja, I had a lot of doubts and questions about religion but quickly learned that I wasn’t supposed to have these doubts and questions, that their presence meant I might not be saved. So I dealt with them internally, fighting against the fear of hell, which was very real to me at the time. 
And when I became sexually active in my later teenage years, my fears were compounded by guilt and shame. Let me tell you, it wasn’t fun.

While Calling My Name is not my story, it was definitely born out of my experience. And I wanted to share my truth, to give voice to the struggle of sexual shame and guilt (which a lot of teenagers deal with, especially girls), and to speak to the terrifying experience of departing from one’s family and community teachings to find one’s own way.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Because Calling My Name is written in vignettes, I mostly studied novels that were composed of interrelated vignettes and short stories. 

I read any short-story cycle or novel-in-vignettes I could get my hands on, but my favorites were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ( Arte Público Press, 1984), Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Brothers, 1953), and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). I loved the lyricism, economy of language, voice, and characterization in these books. I love their liberated story structures. 
I studied their linking devices and transition techniques. These books taught me how to construct relationships between my vignettes and stories in order to connect them and move the larger story forward. 
They taught me how to take the images, observations, ideas, and threads of dialogue in my individual vignettes and stories and expand them within the larger social, cultural, and emotional context of my book.

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

I wrote Calling My Name during my MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the first piece at the very end of my first semester, fell in love with the voice, and spent the next year and a half adding to the novel piece by piece. Upon graduation, I had a finished, polished book. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was very fortunate to have it happen that way.

It was great to have each new chapter of my novel critiqued every month by an adviser. It was also nice to be able to dedicate the critical analysis part of the program to studying books and techniques that would help me write Calling My Name. And the structure and discipline of the MFA program was invaluable. I don’t think I would have written Calling My Name so fast without the deadlines.

Obviously, an MFA isn’t essential to becoming a fiction writer. There are so many paths, but this one was the right one for me. And one of the best things about the program is the lifelong community of writers it creates. 

I can’t tell you how much inspiration and support I’ve received by being connected to the VCFA community. And that inspiration and support has been vital to me through all parts of my publication journey.

Dream Keepers YA Authors Panel with Renée Watson, Nic Stone,
Liara Tamani, Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, and Vashti Harrison 

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

Taja is a young African-American girl, and her culture is on full display in this book; it’s embedded in the story. Some issues with race come up because race is always a factor for black people, and I wanted to be honest about the ways it’s a factor in Taja’s life. 

One issue involves the time when the neighborhood families of Taja’s white friends move away when the neighborhood starts becoming too black. Another issue surrounds the hard time Taja has with the new black girls at school who thinks she talks too white.

These issues are present, but they aren’t the focus. While books that explicitly deal with America’s race problem are very important (especially in these times), books that remind readers that black people and people of color have more than race problems, that we are whole human beings, with the whole spectrum of human problems and human joys are equally as important. 

Taja is African-American, but she is also just a teenage girl who is trying to figure out her path in life—a human experience so many of us can identify with.
Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Calling My Name a starred review, “An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.”

Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas with her daughter.

She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and a BA from Duke University.


Read about how illustrator Vashti Harrison designed the cover for Calling My Name at Epic Reads. 

Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense

By Helena Echlin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


Happy Halloween! 


Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. 


Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. 


And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.


And now, Helena.


One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.

We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.

Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.

We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.

So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months?

After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.

We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.

Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat.

So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.

When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.

Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader:

Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.

If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.

Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems.

Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.

Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”

In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling.

Avoid “zombie character syndrome.”
My writing students are often so focused on what happens in a story that they forget to have their characters react to it. I call this “zombie character syndrome.”

In fact, interiority—what a character is thinking and feeling—is an important way to increase suspense. It draws the reader’s attention to an approaching threat and makes it sharp and specific.

If your character isn’t scared, then your reader won’t be either. In our first draft, Laurel always “gulped” or “swallowed” when she was terrified (or sometimes had a “lump” in her chest or throat).
What a cliché. In successive drafts, we found more complex and vivid ways to show her reactions.

Book trailer for Sparked (Geek & Sundry, October 2017)



Slow down when it matters. It may seem that writing a fast-paced story means that things have to happen in quick succession, but don’t rush through climactic moments.

The reader is desperate to know what happens next and at the same time, their pleasure lies in the anticipation rather than in finding out. So slow way down.

It’s more psychologically realistic too: if a character’s adrenaline is peaking, their attention is hyper-focused and he or she will notice every detail.

At one point, a psychopath with a hunting rifle threatens Laurel and her friends while she cowers behind a log. In revision, we added in the song of a particular bird, “like the snip of scissor blades,” and have her numbly notice a pill bug on a blade of grass.

Surprise yourself. If you’re writing a tightly constructed novel with lots of twists and turns, you’re probably going to need an outline, unless you’re Stephen King. But don’t stick to it.

Often, the best ideas come from your subconscious, when you are least expecting it. Be open to those ideas and be prepared to change your story or rewrite it entirely if necessary. Remember: if you know what’s going to happen when you are writing it, so will the reader.

When we thought we were finally done, Malena had a plot epiphany at the DMV that meant we had to embark on yet one more draft. But now, when readers say they had “no idea what was coming next” or comment on the “hairpin twists and turns,” it was totally worth it.


Cynsations Notes

Malena and Helena

Helena Echlin, a native of the U.K., is the author of the novel Gone (Random House UK, 2002) and for five years wrote “Table Manners,” an etiquette advice column for Chow, the online food and drink magazine.

She has also written for the Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the U.K., and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the U.S.. She lives in Berkeley and teaches fiction-writing online for Stanford.

Malena Watrous co-authored Sparked. Malena also wrote the novel If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, 2010).

She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and helped to found the Online Writers’ Certificate, Stanford’s two-year online novel-writing program.

She teaches fiction-writing for Stanford as well as working on her own fiction, and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense

By Gillian French
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It’s different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. 


Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. 


We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry’s guest post on adding tension.

So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.


And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.

Readers want to be hooked.

We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.

You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?

Read on for three methods I swear by:

Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.

See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.

In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.

Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.

As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate.

Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.

Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.

  • If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to consider restructuring to make the action feel more measured.
Franklin Treat House, a reportedly haunted mansion in Frankfort, Maine
near Gillian’s hometown. “I’ve heard stories about it since I was a kid.”

Tap into Your Senses: We’ve all felt anticipation and fear; the key is, remembering the finer details of those experiences and breaking it down on the page to get the strongest reaction from your reader.

  • Think of a time when you were genuinely afraid—what effect did it have on your body, how you perceived your surroundings? Was any one sense heightened, a normally mundane smell like stale coffee, or a background noise like passing traffic or a ticking clock? 
  • If it was a person you were afraid of, what was it about their body language or attitude that lingers in your memory? This is your chance to dig into an uncomfortable memory and make it work for you. Brainstorm everything about that moment, then see which details really stand out.

Also, contrasts in sensory perception can go a long way toward disquieting your readers. In The Door to January, during the first confrontation between Natalie and Jason, a boy who bullied and terrorized her when they were younger, I drew the focus in tight, contrasting the brightness of Jason’s words—“Hey, there, sunshine”—with the flat, cold expression in his eyes, trying to put both Natalie and the reader off-balance, not sure what he might do next.

We’re all engineered to seek level ground, to find certainty, and readers will fly through pages to find out when or if the characters achieve that.

Reading and writing suspense are the perfect way to experience nail-biting moments from the safety of your favorite chair. The more you finetune your craft, the stronger your grip on your audience will be—and you may be surprised when they thank you for the ride of their life.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews called The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), “Chilling and suspenseful, this paranormal thriller with a touch of romance will keep readers on the edges of their seats.”

Growing up in rural Maine led Gillian French to believe that the mystery of the past is all around. She uses her surroundings as a setting for the dark stories that often have a creepy twist.

While she’s never seen a ghost, she’s pretty sure she’s heard ghostly footsteps in the night.

Gillian’s short fiction has appeared in various publications and anthologies. Her first YA novel, Grit (HarperCollins, 2017) received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.

Her next novel,  The Lies They Tell (HarperCollins) is scheduled for publication in May 2018.

She holds a degree in English from the University of Maine and is perpetually at work on her next novel.