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 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.
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.
Fifteen-year-old Munna lives with his Ma and sisters in a small town in India.
Determined to end his family’s misfortunes, he is lured into a dream job in the Middle East, only to be sold. He must work at the Sheikh’s camel farm in the desert and train young boys as jockeys in camel races.
The boys, smuggled from poor countries, have lost their families and homes. Munna must starve these boys so that they remain light on the camels’ backs, and he must win the Gold Sword race for the Sheikh.
In despair, he realizes that he is trapped and there is no escape . . .
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I grew up in East Africa amidst a fusion of cultures: East Indian, British Colonial, African, and later, American and Canadian.
The multicultural exposure made it difficult for me to raise my children in North America in the 1980s. I was troubled by questions like: Can my children embrace our traditions as well as fit in with their peers? Can they be cool if they are different?
In desperation, I searched the libraries and bookstores for relevant fiction to answer my questions, but came up empty handed. Frustrated, I began to write my own stories for my children.
Once, my son commented: But Mom, why are your stories not books?
I replied: Because I am not an author.
He pursued: Why can’t you be an author, Mom?
Hmmm, I thought. I should try, I told myself without knowing zilch about publishing.
Truly, sometimes ignorance is bliss.
So I tried to publish the stories without a smidgen of knowledge on how long the publishing cycle takes. Several years flew by before my stories were published.
Indeed, my children grew up faster than my books did.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I first learned about camel-slave jockeys from my daughter who was researching on human rights topics for Persuasive Speech and Debate. I saw images of young boys of four-to-five years of age in racing body armor and helmets but bare feet, working in the blistering heat of the desert and was horrified.
An eight-year-old jockey who suffered a fall on the racing track with serious abdominal injuries said in a local newspaper: “I wish there were no camels in this world.”
Another said: “I only remember death was dancing on all sides, we were falling down and the cars following the race were taking away the bodies of those who were killed or injured.”
The words lingered in my mind, often echoing eerily. Like Munna in Ghost Boys, the young camel jockeys became ghosts inside of me, haunting me, refusing to rest until I told their story.
What research did you do to learn more about child slavery?
I went to Middle East three times. I visited a racing track early morning before the sun rose and watched a camel race take place. Photographs were forbidden, but I managed to converse to a few camel trainers brought from Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
I scoured the information in international newspapers about the lives of the camel jockeys and reports by UNICEF. I watched documentary films on camel jockeys in BBC as well as CBC.
Bryant Gumbel on HBO told us about the camel jockeys in The Sports of the Sheikh, in which the British photojournalist, David Higgs and Ansar Burney, a Pakistani human rights crusader, secretly visited several camel camps with a hidden camera.
Their story of young camel-slave jockeys chilled me to the marrow.
What aspect of the subject surprised you most?
That the laws were flouted even after the robots replaced young boys as camel jockeys. In 2005, a
law in the United Arab Emirates prohibited the use of children under the age of 18 as camel jockeys.
But the cover page of Time Magazine, Dec 14, 2011 featured a 35-year-old mother of five, an acid attack survivor, Azim Mai. Her husband allegedly threw acid in her face after she refused to sell their two boys to a man in Dubai to use as camel racers.
I was surprised by the statistics of modern slavery. Modern slavery includes debt bondage, forced marriage, child labor, human trafficking, and forced labor. According to World Map Slavery, more than 29 million people in the world today live in slavery, the size of a nation.
What do you hope readers take away from Ghost Boys?
I hope to raise an awareness of modern day child slavery and the horrors of dowry. I want to offer hope to the readers, that regardless of our inherent weakness or flaws in life, our flip side is strength. The beast is two headed but they share the same heart.
In Ghost Boys, Munna thanks his curse that has turned him into a bad luck brother. He says, “While I hate the curse, it gives me courage. It’s like a two-headed beast in my heart. If I lose it, my courage might go.” Banish the beast and the heroism vanishes.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
In Doggy language: Sit. Stay. Write.
Writing may be a long journey, but there are ‘ah ha’ magical moments along the way. Writing is the most emotional and personal tasks ever. For me it is a love-hate affair. Writing is that rich, sweet, golden ladhu, Indian sweetmeat that melts in my mouth. If I eat it, I will regret it. But if don’t eat it, I will also regret it. I always profess to my hubby this is the last book I am writing, but then there is another. I believe words have the power to change lives, especially the young minds. Writing will help us understand the strange breed of humanity. It will enrich our lives as well as the lives of the readers.
I believe the next magical thing in the universe after giving birth to babies is giving birth to books. Our stories will last longer than we will. In the end, they are all that will be left.
What would you have done differently?
A major mistake was not having a proper outline on paper. Of course, the fuzzy plot of the story was in my head, but after several months of writing, I found to my astonishment, suddenly lost, stuck in the middle-muddle with no road map.
What should happen to Munna in the Ghost Boys after he faces the sandstorm? For months, I’d stare at the half-written story on the computer screen and hastily divert to other tasks such as emails etc.
Thankfully after recalling ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel’ in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, in which the camel gives birth to a rare white calf and refuses to nurse her baby, I moved on.
I learned the importance of drawing a sketch of the setting where the story takes place. It added a lot of clarity to the plot.
A big thing I learned was humility. After my last novel, Child of Dandelions (Boyds Mills Press, 2008), that garnered a lot of attention, I thought I knew it all. That I could easily whip out the next book.
Every story faces new challenges. I forgot that I was climbing another mountain with different peaks and valleys. The smugness cost me years of confusion and re-learning about writing all over again. Next time around, I hope to start with the basics and with grace.
Shenaaz Nanji‘s Child of Dandelions, a novel about the expulsion of Uganda’s Asians, was shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.
It was also named a finalist for the Manitoba Young Readers Choice, a finalist for the Rhode Island Teen Book and a Notable Book Global Society from the International Reading Association.
Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that the baby she’s carrying will finally mean she’ll have a family member who will love her deeply and won’t ever leave her—not like her mama, who took off when she was eight; or her papi, who’s in jail; or her abuela, who wants as little to do with her as possible.
But when doctors discover a potentially fatal heart defect in the fetus, Mari faces choices she never could have imagined.
Surrounded by her loyal girl crew, her off-and-on boyfriend, and a dedicated doctor, Mari navigates a decision that could emotionally cripple the bravest of women. But both Mari and the broken-hearted baby inside her are fighters; and it doesn’t take long to discover that this sick baby has the strength to heal an entire family.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I love reading young adult literature. I love the fast pace and the fact that no matter what happens over the course of the story, there is hope at the end as the characters are young and change is possible.
In much the same way, I was drawn to pediatrics when I was in medical school. Kids are just so much more fun and interesting than grown ups! And kids are strong. Even when they are very sick, they have a higher chance of pulling through than us old(er) folks.
Also, I vividly remember what it was like to be a teen. I can still feel the excitement, the acute awareness of approaching potential. I spent so much time dreaming. There was so much I wanted to do with my life. The time that is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood is special and unique. I naturally believed it would be the most interesting time in my characters’ lives.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?
I didn’t set out to write about a Latina character. I set out to create a story that would move the reader.
It just so happened that I am a half-Cuban pediatric cardiologist who took care of a number of young Dominican/Dominican-American women pregnant with babies with heart defects. I was one of the only Spanish-speaking fetal cardiologists at my hospital, so these women tended to come to see me.
I remember the exact moment I thought of the premise for Water In May.
I was coming up out of the 168th Street subway, mulling over a scene in my first manuscript. My brain switched to my upcoming patients for the day. I stopped dead on the sidewalk outside the hospital front entrance. Throngs of people in scrubs passed me, headed for the glass doors.
What if there were a young Latina who wanted a baby desperately? Who wanted someone who would love her and not leave? What would she do if the baby had a heart defect and might not survive? That would make a great story.
Ambulance bay at hospital where Ismee worked.
I wasn’t ready to put my first manuscript aside. But when I got home that evening, I jotted down some notes. And I thought of that character, that strong Latina woman, over the next few years.
When I was ready, I sat down and wrote the novel in three months. This was fast for me and I think it was because I had such a strong grasp of my protagonist. Mari wasn’t based off any single patient. She was a mix of many of them, and of me as well. Her contrary, feisty nature is me unfiltered.
But I do believe my Cuban abuelos, who took care of my brother and I growing up as both our parents worked, gave me stronger insight into my Latina patients that went beyond the common language. I understood how crazy they were about babies.
My abuelos, my mother and I were the same. And in Cuban and Dominican culture, family is muy importante. Which makes Mari’s wound of feeling abandoned by her parents and her grandmother even more acute.
Ismee’s mother, her Abuelo and teenage Ismee.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
Perhaps the funniest moment of my publishing journey was the day my agent, the illustrious Jim McCarthy, called to offer me representation.
I was working in the library, immersed in another manuscript, when my phone buzzed. I ran out to the hallway, murmuring, “Please hold on,” so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow library-mates.
The connection was so poor I could barely hear what Jim was saying. Perhaps only every third word came through. I was running up and down the stairs of the old building, trying to find a spot with good reception, my heart hammering.
Silent curses against my cell phone carrier and the very loud thunderstorm that was no doubt disrupting service streamed through my mind. After trying for a few minutes, Jim hung up!
But then he emailed me explaining that he normally likes to make the offer verbally but email would suffice. It all worked out in the end, but it was nerve-wracking while it was happening!
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
First of all, attend as many writers’ conferences as you can. I live in New York City and was able to attend the SCBWI Winter conferences five years in a row.
I attended breakout sessions with agents and editors where I learned the do’s and don’t’s of writing a query letter along with practical writing tips such as cutting extraneous scenes that do not move the plot forward.
The keynotes speeches from established authors were equally influential. Who knew that famous authors spent years trying to get published, working menial jobs or living off significant others or parents while fine-tuning their writing? That they, too, submitted to hundreds of agents and editors before finally breaking into the publishing world?
These conferences gave me the desire and hope to keep plugging away along with concrete tips on how to fine-tune my craft.
My second piece of advice is to join a writers’ critique group. I was starving for feedback for a very long time, not realizing I was surrounded by people who could help me. Find local authors/aspiring authors who write in the same genre as you do. Share your work. Offer up feedback and they will do the same. The experience is invaluable. I found my critique partners online through SCBWI.
Kirkus Reviews gave Water in May a starred review. Peek: “Full of spot-on cultural texture and packing an emotional punch, this is an unusual take on the teen-pregnancy problem novel. Mari’s is a voice and path that are often dismissed or derided, but Williams presents her experience in a way that demands not pity but respect….”
Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who worked at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for fifteen years.
As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, partially raised by her abuelos, her background helped her understand the many Maris she met along the way. She lives in New York with her husband, three book-loving kids and a dog who looks like a muppet.
I heard Clete read the opening chapter several years ago for his graduate reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It gave me chills, and I’m so happy the book is now out in the world.
From the promotional copy:
Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem.
What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer.
Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret.
But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I took a leave of absence from my teaching duties to enroll at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to pursue my dream of writing for young readers.
Shortly after that, my then-wife’s uncle got in touch to let us know that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and had been given six months to live. We invited him to come and live with us.
This was a man who I adored; he was a talented, funny, friendly, charismatic mess of a guy. And I did not have much previous experience with the process of dying—especially not up close—and as I was at home instead of at work, I became one of his primary caregivers.
The experience fundamentally changed me. My relationship with death had mostly been through stories, where people offer pearls of wisdom on their deathbed and stoically accept their fate.
This is not what I was seeing. This man was furious that he had cancer. He was not “ready” to die and he did not feel like giving anybody any pearls of wisdom. It was messy and scary and heartbreaking.
And when it was over I knew that I had to tell this story, for one reason because it was the book that I wanted to see on the shelves and had not found, and also because writing it helped me find some closure.
At the same time I had been kicking around an idea about a YA book told from the perspective of a high school drug dealer.
I knew some of these kids from my teaching career—they flew under the radar and would never cause any problems with teachers, because getting in trouble would raise red flags and limit access to their teenage clients. I got to know a few of these kids (as much as they would let a teacher get close, anyway) and couldn’t stop wondering about what their lives were like when they left school at the end of the day. I ended up combining the two ideas for Mr. 60%.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
The challenges were mostly psychological.
Many of the difficult scenes that happen in Mr. 60% are basically exactly what happened when I was caring for this man. Some of the dialogue is verbatim from real life.
So when I would sit down at my writing desk for the day I knew that I would be reliving some very painful memories in very vivid detail.
As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?
I don’t think this book would exist without my experiences in the MFA program at VCFA.
Uma Krishnaswami & Clete
First off, everyone there was encouraging people to “write the book that scares you.”
Well, the idea of this book certainly scared me.
I was used to writing funny, lighthearted middle grade stuff, and even thinking about this book took me way out of my comfort zone.
I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor in my second semester. When I initially met with Uma Krishnaswami, she asked what I would be working on.
It was the first time that I had admitted out loud that I would be tackling this project, and as soon as I opened my mouth I just started bawling. Uma came around the desk, put her arms around me, and told me it was going to be all right. She was so helpful and supportive, not just with the writing, but with the emotional toll of writing the book.
I remember early in the process, I was going to give up and go back to writing lighthearted stuff. It was just too painful to dredge up all of these memories, and I felt very alone at my writing desk.
Well, on the day I was going to give up, Uma called me up. It was rare for advisors to call students, at least for me—this is the only time I can remember it happening in my two years in the program—and she was calling to say that she had found a song that reminded her of the character in my book who had terminal cancer, and she sent me a link to the song.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the song, as I didn’t really connect with it in the same way.
But that phone call made all of the difference. I didn’t feel so alone when I sat down at my writing desk anymore, and I swear I could feel Uma’s arms around me again during the really tough parts of the writing process.
After that, I have never written a book so fast. The bulk of what became the final manuscript was written over three “packets” (which is three months in real time).
With Uma’s support and encouragement, it just sort of came pouring out of me.
How was your approach to writing this book different than your previous work?
My first three novels were for middle grade and they had a first-person POV narrator who was lighthearted and fairly open about discussing the struggles he was facing as he moved from boy to teenager.
So for this one I thought it would be an interesting challenge—and fitting for this particular character—to have a main character that told the reader nothing at all about himself. This is an extension of the fact that he tells the other characters in the book nothing about himself—he has built his walls tall and sturdy.
So I really wanted to use a spare, minimalist approach, where the reader has to infer everything through words and actions.
It’s also a very emotional story, though, although nothing is explained for the reader. I am hoping that the result is emotionally resonant.
Kirkus Reviews said Mr. 60% “is well-structured, moving quickly between beats but not rushing” and calls Matt “a compelling central character.”
“Troubled.” That’s seventeen-year-old Genesis according to her small New Jersey town. She finds refuge and stability in her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter—until he abandons her at a Planned Parenthood clinic during their appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The betrayal causes Gen to question everything.
As Gen pushes herself forward to find her new identity without Peter, she must also confront her most painful memories. Through the lens of an ongoing four act play within the novel, the fantasy of their undying love unravels line by line, scene by scene.
Digging deeper into her past while exploring the underground theater world of New York City, she rediscovers a long forgotten dream. But it’s when Gen lets go of her history, the one she thinks she knows, that she’s finally able to embrace the complicated, chaotic true story of her life, and take center stage.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
What came to me first was a vision of the opening scene: A girl named Genesis would have an abortion, walk out into the waiting room, and find her boyfriend gone. From there, I had no idea where the story would go, but I always knew this was where it started.
It went many different directions in the drafting process—the first round even had a traveling ghost theater troupe!—but that scene was the anchor. Beyond that, I knew I wanted to write about abortion but I never wanted the journey to the choice to be part of the story. We were going to enter the world with the choice made.
I also wanted to tackle the subject without shame. These were the bits and pieces. Then I just had to get to know Genesis in order for the rest to come out.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
The worst moment of my publishing journey came while I was revising the novel with my agent. I was full of momentum after finishing my MFA program and signing with an agent right out of the gate, ready to finish the manuscript and put it out into the world.
I read the opening scene for my graduate reading to a tremendous response, and was full of confidence about how edgy and boundary pushing I was going to be. Opening the book with a minute-by-minute abortion scene was going to Blow. People’s. Minds. I told myself this.
Bonnie with her VCFA diploma
Then one day, I received feedback from my agent that she thought we should cut that opening scene and start the story somewhere else. That maybe opening with that scene was a bit too intense for the people sitting around acquisitions tables. That maybe it was a little too much like staring at a car crash. After all, this is one of the most divisive subject matters in this country.
I was shattered by this suggestion. I have a punk rock spirit, and have always thought I should never think about stuff like that when making art. To me, agreeing to cut this scene felt like the first time that I had to make a business decision over an artistic one.
But I see now how I was still in this cloud of overconfidence. I didn’t write for two months after this suggestion. I didn’t know what this book was without that opening scene. My agent assured me that after I made that cut, if the book didn’t feel authentically me, then we could always go back. But I really didn’t know how to do it. I felt like I had come so far and maybe the story wouldn’t actually go anywhere now.
After killing the biggest darling of my life, and basically skinning myself alive, I had to grieve and then I had to heal a bit. But then something amazing happened. Without my dependency on the impact of the opening scene, I had to make the whole damn book live up to that kind of weight. It pushed me to think about the rest of the book and what it needed.
That opening scene was my anchor, but that was also drowning me. I don’t know how my wizard agent, Emily van Beek, saw that, but I’m so grateful she pushed me that way. I revised this manuscript with her for nearly two years before it went on sub (minus the two months I was paralyzed by my own ego. Okay, it might have been three. Or four.).
In an intellectual way, I always knew that I agreed with the notion of killing your darlings. But until I felt this so closely, I didn’t really get it. It’s deep. And it hurts. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say.
Launch party for Aftercare Instructions at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn
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?
I recently traveled to Ireland, and upon landing had to fill out a card for immigration. When it asked for my occupation, it was the first time that I allowed myself to put “author” instead of all the million other occupations I’ve identified with and as. But when I handed it to the border agent, I felt a momentary panic that maybe he would tell me I wasn’t really an author. That’s the irrational self-doubting part of my brain on overdrive right there. Like I would have to prove to him that I really was an author or I wouldn’t be allowed entry!
But those moments of uncertainty aside, I’m slowly acclimating to the beast of marketing. Marketing and promotion and social media and all kinds of administrative work that I didn’t anticipate can easily fill up my days. At first, my thinking was, I will take care of all that business in the morning, then have the afternoon free and clear for writing. However, free and clear never really comes once you start the other stuff. I realized that if I don’t do my creative work in the morning, then I can never fully focus on it. The other stuff creeps in. I think I’ll probably always have to strategize to maintain this balance, but for now that seems to work. If anything is going to creep into my afternoon, I would much rather have it be the new story I’m working on!
Publishers Weekly described Aftercare Instructions as a “sensitive and big-hearted debut” and Kirkus Reviews wrote: “leads readers on a journey through grief to hope again.”
Bonnie Pipkin believes in prose, performances, puppet shows, and public displays of affection. Originally from California, Bonnie now lives in Brooklyn.
One of the most vital aspects of timeless writing is voice. Every serious reader, every writer has (or must develop), a strong sense of what voice is. Yet, like time, voice eludes definition.
Of course, I’m going to try and define it. To me, voice is the promise of the first page – the texture of the writing. It’s like the background music in a movie – or the wash an artist lays down to prepare the painting – something that isn’t entirely visible and yet pervades the creation.
What’s the best way to develop your own voice?
Here are three tips I hope will help.
1. Read, read, read the voices of others. Immersing yourself in books with rich voices will help you hone your own.
While I don’t for a mini-second suggest that any writer try to copy another writer’s voice – I do recommend, strongly, that every writer read as much as is humanly possible.
The best way to get a feel for voice and to develop your own is to tune in to the music of the written word – by reading writers with strong voices.
Here are some books written in powerful voices that I highly recommend (and, as with all lists, I’m sure I’ll leave out some favorites, but these wonderful books for young people come to mind at the moment):
2. Experiment with sentences and paragraphs, if not entire stories.
Padma writing on the deck
Each of your characters has a different voice. Unless the novel is written from multiple points of view, however, you usually spend most of your time narrating in the voice that, most likely, comes closest to your own.
This is fine.
But by briefly experimenting with telling the story in another’s tone and seeing the story through another’s voice, you may be able to more clearly define the narrator’s voice that you naturally gravitate toward.
If you are writing close third or first person point of view, try switching bodies.
Write an important scene or two in another character’s voice. This will not only help you enhance your understanding of this character, it will also give you a greater appreciation for your main character’s voice.
If you tend to write long, luxurious sentences, try writing a paragraph with short sentences and sentence fragments. And the other way around.
My second novel, Island’s End (G.P. Putnam, 2011), is written in lush, rich prose.
My third novel, A Time To Dance (Nancy Paulsen, 2014) is written in lean spare prose. I learned a great deal by journeying from one style to another – and I love both, I’ll admit.
I also love the in-between, which is where, I think, my debut novel, Climbing The Stairs (G.P. Putnam, 2008) fits.
3. Respect your heart, not just your head.
I was an oceanographer. Now I’m a writer. I can attest to the fact that not even scientists are always objective.
Padma working on a research ship
The field of literature is largely if not entirely subjective. Thus, it’s only natural that we often subjugate our own responses to a piece in favor of revered reviewers’ opinions.
Yet if you wish to carve your own unique niche, you must let yourself love whatever you love.
There’s no shame in loving a book that has been deemed ridiculous or at least one that hasn’t received the attention you think it deserves.
It’s important to seek out such books, books that haven’t got a lot of hype, and asking yourself whether you think they deserved more (or less).
It’s also important to question and pause and discover which books you adore, deep inside, regardless of whether they won acclaim and awards or not.
When you discover these lesser known books and less celebrated authors, you begin to celebrate your own opinions. And as you grow comfortable with your individual taste, your confidence as a writer also grows.
You start respecting your ideas, your sense of strength. And you must realize what you truly love (regardless of what the world says you should love) if you wish to write in a voice that is powerful – which is to say, a voice that is uniquely your own.
Padma Venkatraman is the author of three novels, which together garnered 12 starred reviews, and were included in over 50 shortlists.
In addition, her books have won several awards (such as the Paterson Prize, the South Asia Book Award, the Julia Ward Howe Award, and the ASTAL RI Book of the year award), and received many honors, including ALA notable, ALA BBYA, Booklist BBYA, Kirkus BBYA, NYPL Book for the Teen Age, Bank Street Best Book amd CCBC Notable.
She has spoken and provided workshops and keynote addresses at national and international conferences and festivals.
When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.
But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.
It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.
My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!
My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.
I was living my writing dream!
All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.
I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.
And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.
My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.
The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.
Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.
I’d made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.
My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:
“More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO.”
The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn’t ignore them.
When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.
Now I’d love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.
Still I thought it was a fluke.
“I’m not really a picture book author,” I’d say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.
Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).
Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.
I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).
Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.
These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.
Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:
Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I’d never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it’s rarely any good. I like to tease that I’ve averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can’t resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction.
Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
Don’t limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.
Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She’s sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).
Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)
What are you supposed to do when your debut novel releases in paperback?
b) Heave a sigh of relief
c) Let everyone know
d) All of the above
Ahhh, the conundrums of marketing.
Guess what? There is no prescribed method for marketing our books. There is no must-do, have-to do, should-do list. There is no recommended amount of time you spend doing marketing.
And guess what else? Marketing is counter-intuitive to every thing we love to do as writers: stay home in comfy attire and create imaginary worlds. Marketing is a little too real world, right?
So of course, I was tempted to let the paperback release of Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014) slip into its soft cover without much fanfare.
I chose not to do that because I’ve always had this vision of Evidence passing from hand to hand in the hallways of high schools and I always saw it happening in soft cover format. Certainly the paperback price point made that vision more attainable.
So what to do?
Lindsey & Cyn at the Turkey Trot in Austin
Because I live in Austin, I have the luxury of going out to lunch with friend, mentor, colleague and super kidlit guru Cynthia Leitich Smith.
“Why not reblurb it?” she said.
“Wait?! I can do that?” I asked.
She explained that because Evidence has been out since 2014, lots of other writer pals have read it, liked it and probably want to support it.
I loved this idea because part of what makes sense about marketing for me is building community. No community is better than the children and young adult literature community. We cheer our releases, our successes and our causes.
“This is the kind of book you tuck in with and escape into, and it will stay with you long after you finish the last lines. Haunting and beautiful.”Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook Press, 2014), Devoted (Roaring Brook Press, 2015), Afterward (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) and the forthcoming Moxie (Roaring Brook Press, 2017).
“The narrative jiggers between unexpected opposites—joy and fear, love and violence, grief and hope—all the while holding forth the constant idea that the world offers us credible evidence of what seems impossible if we only know where to look.”J.L. Powers, author of Amina (Allen & Unwin, 2015), This Thing Called The Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), and the forthcoming Broken Circle (Black Sheep, October 2017).
What happened after I received those new blurbs was like sprinkling fairy dust on me and my book. I got reinvigorated.
Let me explain.
When your book debuts in the world, it begins a journey, which is somewhat separate from me (think kid going off to college). People would ask me how Evidence of Things Not Seen was doing. Other than royalty statements, I didn’t know.
I imagined my book toddling around the world perched on book shelves, cradled in someone’s lap or passed to a friend with, hopefully, an urgent recommendation. Yes, I had school visits, speaking engagements and signings but really after your book is out in the world, it has its own experience with readers.
After receiving those blurbs, I researched advertising and book tours.
Advertising is a bit of a gamble. One time in Publishers Weekly or Booklist is hugely expensive. But Facebook is doable. It’s cheaper, effective and targeted. If there is one reason to have an Author page, it is being able to run these kinds of ads.
I’d been receiving their newsletter for a few months and noticed that their content and readership was growing. It was also Texas-based and helmed by women (always a plus).
Because Evidence is set around Blanco alongside US 281, I decided LoneStar Literary would be a great fit. For a very affordable price, I had a 10-stop tour, which included four new reviews and a giveaway.
It was a blast. Great exposure. A lot of fun. Terrific support on Facebook and Twitter. Apparently, it
was a successful tour because Evidence had the most giveaway entries so far for a LoneStar Book Blog Tour. Here is a link to the complete tour.
Promoting the paperback release of Evidence was like taking a honeymoon trip with my book. Even though I am currently engrossed in a new world and its characters, I remembered why I wrote Evidence and why I loved that world and its characters.
Putting together a little hoopla for the paperback release was unexpectedly fun. Highly recommended.
She lives in Austin, Texas but loves to travel, especially to the ocean. She loves books, films, good food and her cadre of dear friends. Her idea of a perfect evening is having a dinner party at her home with friends from around the world and discussing everything under the sun while eating, drinking, and laughing.
Caleb Tosh has suffered one personal trauma too many, but this last one – the sudden departure of his mom – has pushed him down a dark and disorienting path.
His favorite video game, the Boneyard, becomes his go-to coping mechanism, and Tosh gladly gets lost in the maps of the game rather than moving through the landscape of his own grief.
As Tosh falls further and further down the rabbit hole of abandonment and loneliness, he doesn’t see that there are others fighting both virtual and real-life battles alongside him.
What will it take for Caleb Tosh to leave the safety of the Boneyard, rejoin reality, and deal with the wreckage of his actual life?
C.G. Watson is an author, youth activist, and veteran teacher from Northern California. In 1986, she earned a Spanish degree from California State University Chico, a teaching credential the following year, and a masters in education in 1994.
In 2000, C.G. was given a life-changing opportunity: to bring anti-bullying and conflict resolution programs to the high school where she taught. For five years, she coordinated the powerful Challenge Day program, and created and ran a successful student mediation program as well. These have become the heart of her work as both a YA author and youth activist.
C.G. Watson co-founded Never Counted Out, a non-profit organization that provides books and creative mentorship for students, schools, and youth programs whose access to both books and mentorship is limited. C.G.’s debut novel was Quad (Razorbill, 2007) and her novel Ascending The Boneyard (Simon Pulse, 2016) is re-released today in paperback under a new title, The Absoluteness Of Nothing.
The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends…and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.
Billie McCaffrey is always starting things. Like couches constructed of newspapers and two-by-fours. Like costumes made of aluminum cans and Starburst papers. Like trouble.
This year, however, trouble comes looking for her.
Her best friends, a group she calls the Hexagon, have always been schemers. They scheme for kicks and giggles. What happens when you microwave a sock? They scheme to change their small town of Otters Holt, Kentucky for the better. Why not campaign to save the annual Harvest Festival we love so much? They scheme because they need to scheme. How can we get the most unlikely candidate elected for the town’s highest honor?
But when they start scheming about love, things go sideways.
In Otters Holt, love has always been defined one way—girl and boy fall in love, get married, buy a Buick, and there’s sex in there somewhere. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple. Can the Hexagon, her parents, and the town she calls home handle the real Billie McCaffrey?
Could you tell us about Dress Codes for Small Towns? What inspired you to write this book?
Hmm. 80’s movie antics plus 90’s rom-com heart plus a faint Women’s March beat?
When I began Dress Codes, I described it as “Ferris Bueller meets ‘The Breakfast Club'” for lines like this, “The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends—a pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and a douchebag—and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.”
Now, I usually describe Dress Codes as sexually fluid “Footloose.” Preacher’s daughter. Reluctant small town. A pack of kids to change their hearts.
My inspiration was walking barn beams and climbing on top of old elementary schools and wearing my older brother’s clothes. You know, #girlstuff.
Is Otters Holt similar to the town you grew up in?
If you picked up Matchbox car sized Bandana (my hometown) in the palm of your hand and plucked it down alongside the Kentucky Dam, you’d have Otters Holt. Well, if you added a forty-foot Molly the Corn Dolly roadside attraction. And I personally think you should.
Bandana (Courtney’s hometown)
Faith is a subject that doesn’t show up very often in YA books, especially books that explore the gray areas of love, gender and sexuality. How did you create the delicate balance in exploring those subjects?
I’ve spent nearly all my adult life working with teens and here is what I’ve learned: every young adult has a spiritual life. Some exercise that life through churches or organized religion; some through atheism; some through questions brought up reading The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead, 2004) or playing Grand Theft Auto or watching footage from the news.
So, very basically, I love to include faith because students are thinking about it.
As for the gray areas, I have two beliefs that guide my writing. One, people are never ever just one thing. And two, it is not my job to draw conclusions—for the church or this generation—but to love them enough to have the conversation.
What appeals to you about writing for young adults?
Young adults will always be the next generation of world changers. Writing for them gives me a chance to partner with them, which I consider a privilege and an honor.
What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?
Writing is gloriously, wonderfully hard, regardless of audience. I am currently drafting an “adult” book and there appear to be very few, if any, challenges that aren’t present in both crafts.
I like to say that I write coming-of-truth novels rather than coming-of-age novels. So, the thing that makes the adult book “adult” is the protagonist comes of truth in adulthood rather than in her teen years.
With either audience, the bar is the same: write something that makes a reader love reading more today than they did yesterday.
What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?
I’m mostly in it to see how many tattoos I can inspire.
No, seriously, there is a moment near the beginning of every draft when I realize Why I’m writing the book I’m writing—the reasons do vary widely—and I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do in the universe.
That deep connection of purpose and intention fuels my career and joy.
When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?
I often say, I type sitting down, but I write standing up.
If you want to know when and where I type: in my personal office on long binges that rival a Netflix addiction of Stranger Things.
Next writing episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …
If you want to know when and where I write: when I’m rock climbing, or walking The Narrows in Utah, or assembling scaffolding to cover a skylight at church, or asking a librarian if I can drive my sports car through the hallway of a school, or walking 1,000 miles last summer, or planning how I will build a 40-foot roadside attraction in my yard, or ….
Next life episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …
When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?
Looking back, I can see several cairns that marked my path:
She is a former adjunct professor, youth minister, and Olympic torchbearer. She has a pet whale named Herman, a bandsaw named Rex, and several novels with her name on the spine: Faking Normal (Harper Teen, 2014), The Lies About Truth (Harper Teen, 2015), and the e-novella The Blue-Haired Boy (Harper Teen, 2014).
As an educator and author, she visits schools, designs retreats, and teaches workshops on marketing, revision, character development, and Channeling Your Brave. She also likes chips and queso and feels deeply sorry for the lactose intolerant.