Friday, July 16, 2010

New Voice: Ricki Thompson on City of Cannibals

Ricki Thompson is the first-time author of City of Cannibals (Front Street, 2010). From the promotional copy:

“You will not show yourself to the boy.”

“Yes. I mean, I won’t, Father.”


“Or venture past your mother’s cross.”


He gripped his spoon as if it were a knife.
“You know why it is called the City of Cannibals.”

Of course Dell knows. But here on the mountain, all she has is her embittered family—a brother who torments her, an auntie who berates her, and a father who’s a drunk.


And once she arrives in the city—if the cannibals don’t eat her first—surely the Brown Boy will help her. Not that she’s ever spoken to him, but she has seen him leave sacks of supplies for her family. Dell has waited long enough. She escapes to the city.


The City of Cannibals is indeed fraught with dangers and surprises. The Brown Boy, Ronaldo, seems to love the fishmonger’s daughter,
and he’s about to become a Benedictine monk. John the Joiner asks Dell whether she’s signed the Oath of Allegiance to the king, and if she will deliver secret letters to the Benedictine monastery. Worrisome messages about sheep and wolves.

Dell has good reason not to sign the Oath. So does Ronaldo. But the king’s command is clear: every subject must sign or die a traitor’s death. If Dell defies the king, can she save herself and Ronaldo?


In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude?

I have both a philosophical and a practical response to that question. Let me start with the practical.

City of Cannibals has one scene of sexual intimacy. While I was writing the novel, I lay awake many a night, wondering if the scene should lead up to a kiss or to sexual intercourse. Sex, I finally decided.

Then my gifted editor, Joy Neaves, read the manuscript. “Are you sure you want your characters to have sex?” she asked.

No, I wasn’t sure. I’d never been sure. But what to do?

First, I mentally compared City of Cannibals to my next novel, Seduction. Seduction is about a girl who gets involved in stripping and prostitution. Does that story need to include sex? It sure does. But City of Cannibals was literally another story. So I asked myself some questions.

• Did the scene need to be there at all? If I removed the scene, would it effect the story? “Yes,” I said.

• Would my characters have shared a kiss or had sex? “Not sure.”

• What is the story about? Partly it’s about the blossoming—not the consummation—of sexual love. City of Cannibals is already a complicated story that makes demands on the reader. Did that story need a kiss or sex? “A kiss,” I concluded.

My process didn’t discuss the issue of readership or address the question: “Edgy” to whom? The characters in the story? The teen reader? The adult librarian?

Writing about “edgy” behaviors will decrease my readership. Writing about “edgy” behaviors will increase my readership. “Edgy” behaviors will alienate and titillate.

Worrying about these things will make me crazy. My priority as a writer is to preserve the integrity of the story, and if integrity means writing “edgy,” then so be it.

Now for the philosophical response regarding “edgy” behavior. I believe “edgy” behaviors are important both in my life and in my writing.

“Edgy” behavior is a behavior that causes discomfort to the culture in power. It pushes the boundaries (the edges) of what is acceptable and safe. “Edgy” behavior can get you grounded for a month, thrown into detox, burned at the stake.

In the 1960s, cohabiting with your lover was “edgy” behavior. A few decades later, cohabiting became acceptable, and “edgy” meant adorning yourself with tattoos and pierced genitals.

Throughout the generations, sex, drugs, music, and fashion all seem to have great potentials for discomfiting the mainstream. And each generation labels different behaviors “edgy.”

Teen music and dance, for example, have often been viewed as “edgy.” During the 1940s in Europe, swing was no exception. Hitler despised swing because it threatened everything he stood for. The music and movements of swing were loose and easy—the opposite of Nazism, which demanded absolute order and control.

Hitler tried ferociously to control swing. He replaced its lyrics with racist ones and banned the sale of U.S. records in Nazi-occupied countries. Hitler’s tactics didn’t work. The more he repressed swing, the more popular it became. The “edgy” dance was so powerful, it challenged an entire political system. No wonder “edgy” behavior makes people uncomfortable.

As an artist, I have a responsibility to speak the truth. And the truth is, teenagers live in an “edgy” place. What could be edgier than attempting to balance on the tenuous cusp of adulthood? When teens aren’t engaging in “edgy” behavior, they’re likely thinking, fantasizing, or reading about it. How can I write for and about teens if I don’t write “edgy?”

But there’s another truth about “edgy” behavior—about any behavior, for that matter. Actions have consequences. As a writer, I have a responsibility to explore the consequences, positive and negative, of my characters’ behaviors.

If my character chooses to pierce his tongue, what will the consequences be for him? Pleasure? Infection? Admiration from his peers? Anger from his parents? All of the above?

In other words, if I write about “edgy” behavior, then I have to pursue its ramifications.

There’s another reason I write “edgy.” Although I may not live in an “edgy” place, I strive to write from one. In his essay, “Play and Theory of the Duende,” the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, says that the artist possessed by Duende exists on the edge, or cusp of the abyss. The solid ground of ordered life lies on one side, dark chaos on the other. The artist’s calling is to balance on the cusp. To honor order, but not be rigidified by it. To embrace chaos but not be consumed by it. It’s my challenge as a writer to balance on the edge, illuminating the darkness and celebrating the light.


As someone with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young adults, how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students or graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?


Not everyone has the time or opportunity to enter an MFA program. I hope my comments will be helpful to self-taught learners as well as MFA graduates.

Before answering the question of how education advanced my craft, I’d like to first address the question of whether education can advance craft. After all, writing is a mysterious process in which plots and characters and settings mystically take shape in the author’s dreams, right?

Can such a spooky process be taught?

My answer is a qualified but passionate yes.

I completed my MFA in 2006. One day, about half way through the program, I approached my mentor, the late Norma Fox Mazer. Norma was an extraordinary writer and self-taught master of craft.

Writing required genius, I informed her, and I didn’t have it. Perhaps the time had come for me to quit the program.

Norma responded with soft-spoken patience. “Writing is a series of skills,” she said. “Except for voice, they can all be learned.”

Norma wasn’t suggesting that studying craft would turn me into a genius, or even an accomplished writer. She was simply stating that writing isn’t all mystery. Craft can be learned.

If we believe Norma’s claim that education can advance craft, the next question is how?

For me, the MFA program greatly accelerated my learning. The program was intense and demanding. We heard readings by faculty, students, and visiting writers. We listened to lectures on craft and engaged in private discussions. But the heart of the program was the one-on-one mentoring by a faculty coach and the critiquing that occurred in the workshops. My mentors and workshop colleagues spoke specifically to my work.

Does individual coaching really make a difference?

Imagine you’re a tennis player and you want to improve your game. You might read books about tennis or listen to the masters talk about it. But you’d probably learn faster with a coach who could adjust your alignment and fine-tune your game one stroke at a time.

Craft is the manipulation of story elements: plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, theme, point of view, imagistic language, voice. Craft is essential. It holds the story together. But what holds the writer together? If the writer loses confidence and quits writing, craft techniques are useless.

My advice for writers transitioning out of an MFA program is the same as for writers who have never experienced an MFA program: Seek out community.

I know, I know, writing is a solitary act. A writer is a lone horseman, trotting off across the barren plain, a pistol in his holster, a cloud of dust enveloping him. Yes, sometimes writing is like that. The writer galumps along with only her pen and barren page, surrounded by a cloud of unknowing. Many writers choose to live and work alone, and that’s great.

But I can’t. Left alone, I sabotage myself, shoot myself in the foot, so to speak. I convince myself that I should be doing something useful, like organizing the closet.

Or something that matters, like picking up litter. I compare myself to Shakespeare and realize that everything worth saying has already been said and said better than I ever could.

In short, I give up.

A healthy community of writers helps one another develop craft and maintain confidence. A healthy community critiques one another’s work, discusses books, and laughs together. The community shares personal and professional sorrows and celebrates personal and professional joys.

The world of publishing is a brutal one, not because editors, agents, and publishers are heartless people. On the contrary. But they have budgets. Most often they have to say "no."

Community can help us ride the waves of rejection. An MFA program offers students the beginnings of community. But with or without an MFA, a writer can still seek out friends who will understand, nurture, and support them in the journey.

Cynsational Notes

Read an interview with editor Joy Neaves by Karen Cotton from the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (PDF).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to 2010 debut author Lisa Railsback on the release of her debut novel, Betti on the High Wire (Dial, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

Ten-year-old Babo and the other “leftover kids” live on an abandoned circus camp in a war-torn country. Babo believes her circus-star parents will come back for her any day now, so she is not one bit happy when an American couple adopts her.

She hates her new name (Betti) and is confused by everything in America. She’s determined to run away.

But as Betti slowly begins to trust her new family and even makes a friend, she decides maybe she can stay just one more day. And then maybe another . . .

Betti on the High Wire is both heartbreaking and hilarious—and completely unforgettable. This brave little storyteller of a girl will wiggle her way straight into your heart.

Lisa also is the author of Noonie's Masterpiece, illustrated by Sarajo Frieden (Chronicle, 2010). She lives in Austin, Texas.

More News

You Can't Kill the Undead: Or, Paranormal Romance Isn't Going Anywhere by Kiersten White from Kiersten Writes. Peek: "This agony, this feeling that truly connecting with your crush was impossible, stemmed from the idolization of the Other. That person was so foreign, such a mystery, it made you want them even more and terrified you that it was impossible to ever get them." See also Jennifer R. Hubbard on Romance with Friction from AuthorsNow!

Business vs. Art by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "As much as writers and agents and editors want it to be all about the art, they need to make money for themselves, for their agency, for their house. As much as people like paying their rent and putting their kids through school, they also want to create something meaningful and fulfilling…." Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

20 Tips for Attending SCBWI Conferences by Linda Joy Singleton from The Spectacle. Peek: "After receiving a business card or bookmark, make a note on it to remind you about the person you just met. When I get home after a conference and have a bunch of cards, it’s easier to remember clearer with helpful notes to remind me of new friends." Read a Cynsations interview with Linda.

Seven Power Twitter Tips and Why I Like Them by Michael from IHEARTEdTech. Peek: "Retweet the good stuff from others. Sharing is caring. Somewhat related to the above, you’ll find that retweeting helps you build relationships with those you retweet."

We Remember Norma Fox Mazer: Writer and Teacher: 1931-2009 by Anne Mazer from Jewish Women's Archive. Read Cynsations interviews with Norma and Anne.

A Clowder of Cats: a round up by Carol Brendler of cat-centric picture books from Jacket Knack. Peek: "When it comes to picture books, look no further than your very own backyard and the popular, ever-appealing image of the feline." See also Kit Lit: Cat-Themed Picture Books and The Children's Book Cats Extraordinaire: Official Writer Feline Bios from the chez Leitich Smith kitties.

Inclusion from Arthur A. Levine's Blog. Peek: "...the Lambda Literary Foundation has changed the rules for its literary award, so that it is granted to an author who identifies as LBGT, rather than a book that portrays the LGBT experience..." Note: includes thoughtful discussion in the comments from youth literature professionals with varying opinions. References Too Gay or Not Gay Enough? by Ellen Wittlinger from The Horn Book.

10 Things My Creative Writing MFA Taught Me Not to Do by Kate Monahan from Writer's Digest. Peek: [Don't] "Assume you have to save every piece of work. Some stories are worth letting go. Some stories are 'practice' stories, building blocks. They help us grow as writers." Source: April Henry.

Cynsational Author Tip: you do not own the copyright to reviews of your book and should not publish them without permission. Keep any quotes short, attribute, and if online, it's gracious to include a link to the review source.

On the Trail of Harper Lee by Kerry Madden from the LA Times. Peek: "The majority of people I interviewed were in their 80s and 90s, and three have since passed away. One story led to another, and the story I went seeking wasn't always the story I came away with but often something better." Read a Cynsations interview with Kerry.

Jane Fitch's 10 Rules for Writers from the Los Angeles Times. Peek: "Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going crosseyed." Source: Lisa Schroeder.

Books at Bedtime: The Stories of Richard Van Camp: recommendations by Sally from PaperTigers. Peek: "As soon as I got these books, I read them to my daughter and she was completely taken in by them. She was struck especially by the lesson conveyed in A Man Called Raven (Children's Book Press, 1997), illustrated by George Littlechild wherein a mysterious man teaches some boys not to be cruel to ravens." Learn more about Richard Van Camp.

Barefoot Books’ Ambassador Veronika Riches by Corinne from PaperTigers. Peek: "Parents and educators alike love the multicultural concept of the books. People are attracted to how colourful and beautifully illustrated the books are."

Marriage for Writers by Peni R. Griffin from Idea Garage Sale. Peek: "For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer - who you marry will affect what you write, when you write, how you write. I recommend that every writer who is contemplating marriage read a few biographies with that in mind, and consider how this person fits in with your writing life." Read a Cynsations interview with Peni.

Cover Stories: The Blood Coven Series by Mari Mancusi from Melissa Walker. Peek: "They even changed the original jokey back cover copy to something darker and more mysterious to emphasize the angsty romance in the books, rather than the humor." See Mari on "Kids Don't Read Like They Used To...And That's a Good Thing."

What are Your Favorite Blogs? by Alice Pope from SCBWI Children's Market Blog. Peek: "There are just so many good industry blogs to choose from, and the task of creating the lists is a tad on the tedious side. It's kind of like cleaning out my closet. It's not awesome while I'm doing it, but I'm always very happy with the results when it's finished."

An Interview with Literary Agent Lauren MacLeod by Jeff Rivera from GalleyCat. Peek: "In addition to a great voice, I'm always looking for funny books in any of the YA or MG sub-genres. Funny is very hard to pull off, but it is a real sweet spot for me. I'd also love to see more YA or MG horror in my slush pile."

Tweet Roundup by Alice Pope from Alice's SCBWI Children's Market Blog. Peek: "Today's tweet soup: a stock of tips and advice, heaping spoonfuls of craft and vampire, a dash of this, a dash of that, topped off with a couple crispy conference croutons."

In the Harry Potter Era, An American Fantasy by Rebecca Serle from The Huffington Post. Peek: "Both The Underneath (2008) and Keeper (2010) [by Kathi Appelt (both Atheneum)] are fantasies but they are also deeply rooted in America. Just when we think we're in some faraway land you remind us--nope, still Texas!"

The Kennedys - the brother-sister, author-illustrator team behind the Pirate Pete picture book series (Abrams, 2002, 2006, 2007). Note: Doug has recently relocated to Austin, Texas.

A Novelist's Storyboard by Tami Lewis Brown from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "There's a block for an image, and underneath, lines for text. So how do you fill it in--- what goes in those blocks? I have some recommendations, but ultimately it's up to you."

Notes from the Horn Book by Jennifer M. Brabander. Highlights of the new issue include a Q&A with Grace Lin. Read a Cynsations interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton.

Boy Characters in YA by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "One way that writers with boy main characters in YA can be successful is if they take lots of girl appeal..." Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Eight Ways to Enrich Your Character by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "What would your character never say or do? Of course, they must say or do this very thing. And do it with memorable lines. One of my characters knows his place in his world and it’s a humble place. So, when he says he’d be Emperor some day, it enlarges his characterization."

Read-a-Likes: Zombies: a reading round up by Karin from Karin's Book Nook. Note: look for Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, Aug. 17, 2010).

Children's and Young Adult Books with Interracial Family Themes from Children's & YA Literature Resources. Bibliography and related resources.

Life Gets in the Way by Ann Aguirre from Writer Unboxed: About the Craft and Business of Genre Fiction. Peek: "Without fresh experiences, your work withers and becomes frail." Source: Elizabeth Scott.

Cynsational Screening Room

Tenner Debuts for July to December:

Tenner Trailer Group 3 from tye murphy on Vimeo.

Check out the book trailer for Swoon at Your Own Risk by Sydney Salter (Graphia, 2010).


Check out the book trailer for Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus (Egmont, 2010), and see an interview with Anastasia from Denise Jaden.



Cheryl Renée Herbsman reads from Breathing (Viking, 2009). Peek: "...about the main character Savannah's first kiss with her beau Jackson."



Check out the book trailer for Potty Animals by Hope Vestergaard, illustrated by Valeria Patrone (Sterling, 2010):


Why You Should Promote Your Back-List Books: an interview with Alexis O'Neil by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "...a book is back-listed within six-months of publication. That’s hardly enough time to get the word out about it. I think that our promotional efforts should keep on going as long as the book is in print. And I think that fresh material on a variety of platforms introduces your book to new and diverse audiences."



More Personally

Much of this week was spent working on the Eternal graphic novel in the dining room. The gray-and-white blanket on the chair beside mine was knitted by one of my very favorite people, Rita Williams-Garcia. I'd resolved to keep the cats off of it. I did. However, Mercury has his own opinion on the matter. In fairness, he has been quite respectful. I've never seen him demonstrate such a love of natural fibers.

Thanks to editor Alvina Ling and co-anthologists Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci for organizing Monday night's twitter chat in honor of the paperback release of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd (Little, Brown, 2010). Thanks also to everyone who tweeted by!

Amy H. Sturgis shares her favorite quote from my tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). See the novel Web extension and discussion guide. Note: Rain is also available for unabridged audio download from Listening Library.

For those who missed it, here's the Rain Is Not My Indian Name book trailer, created by Shayne Leighton:



Shayne Leighton | MySpace Video


Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2010). Just email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "How to Survive Middle School" in the subject line.

Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up; I'll write you for contact information, if you win.

Deadline: midnight CST July 31. Note: U.S. entries only.

Cynsational Events

The Austin SCBWI Diversity in Kid Lit Panel Discussion will feature author-illustrator Don Tate, illustrator Mike Benny, author Varian Johnson, author Lila Guzman, author/librarian Jeanette Larson and take place at 11 a.m. Aug. 14 at at BookPeople in Austin.

Author Pamela Ellen Ferguson will be presenting and signing Sunshine Picklelime, illustrated by Christian Slade (Random House, 2010) at 2 p.m. Aug. 15 at BookPeople in Austin.

The launch party for Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, Aug. 2010) will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 12 at BookPeople in Austin.

Southwest Texas SCBWI Fall Editor Day will be from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 18 at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Featured speakers are Sarah Shumway, HarperCollins editor; Julie Ham, Charlesbridge associate editor, and Carmen Tafolla, award-winning author. See more information.

The Five Tribes Story Conference and Festival will be Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Peek: "According to one of the conference planners, Tim Tingle, the event will “focus on the stories of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma, with a great opening line-up of tellers, writers, and academic thinkers in the field."

Picture Perfect! A Spit-Polish Workshop at St. Edwards University, featuring famed Lisa Wheeler as Keynote Speaker is scheduled for Oct. 9 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Faculty also will include Sarah Sullivan, Stephanie Greene, Don Tate, and Laura Jennings. See more information (PDF).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Kimberly Willis Holt

Learn about Kimberly Willis Holt.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children's-YA literature?

Writing for different age groups wasn't a calculated decision. It just happened. I never thought I'd write a picture book or a series for young readers.

When I created a scrapbook filled with the moments waiting for my nephew to be born, I started to think about how they might also be an interesting subject to explore.

The only problem was I set the entire story in a hospital waiting room, leaving no room for picture opportunities. It took me nine years to get it right.

My other picture books have come to me like my novels--a voice with a first line. For me, that's the key.

That's also what led me to write the Piper Reed series (Henry Holt, 2007-). "I've lived everywhere," the voice said. I followed the voice, and it brought me to a story.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I'm an auditory person. The voice and dialogue of my stories usually comes easier for me. Adding the visual details is not as easy. Picture books remind me that visual details matter (even if the illustrator is the one providing those).

Short stories are my first love, and I'm a little sad that I don't spend as much time writing them these days. Although I think the novel is where I'm most suited, I'll will always dream that one day I'll be known as a decent short story writer.

But even my short stories that were published were novel-like. They took place over more time than I think a fine short story should. So, maybe writing short stories made me realize I should stick to novels.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

There are certainly advantages to sticking to the same kind of book. Folks come to expect a certain type of story for a certain age group and the writer delivers.

But that's not the kind of writing life I want. Thank goodness I write for a publisher that has allowed me to explore outside of the box.

When I turn in a complex novel, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to focus on Piper Reed. I owe my sanity to that character.

The downside to writing for different ages is that, after almost 12 years of being published, there are still a lot of people out there who don't know my name. I think some of that has to do with my exploring different forms. That being said, I wouldn't have it any other way.


Cynsational Notes


The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Voice: Josh Berk on The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

Josh Berk is the first-time author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Being a hefty, deaf newcomer almost makes Will Halpin the least popular guy at Coaler High.

But when he befriends the only guy less popular than him, the dork-namic duo has the smarts and guts to figure out who knocked off the star quarterback. Will can’t hear what’s going on, but he’s a great observer.

So, who did it? And why does that guy talk to his fingers? And will the beautiful girl ever notice him?

(Okay, so Will’s interested in more than just murder . . .)

Those who prefer their heroes to be not-so-usual and with a side of wiseguy will gobble up this witty, geeks-rule debut.


Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I spent a few years as an avowed plunger, repeating mantras like: "If I am not surprised by what happens next, how will the reader be?" It was fun, but my writing was unfocused and more or less plot-less. The readers were not surprised because there were no readers. I wrote colorful sentences and snappy dialogue, but there was no compelling story and my queries were rejected.

And then I had an idea (after a weird dream and a "Law & Order" marathon) for a YA mystery. I wanted to write a book about a deaf student who spies on his classmates and solves a murder at his high school. And I knew nothing about writing a mystery!

So I did some research, read some "how to write a mystery" books and essays. And they all advised plotting carefully. They advised that I outline and plan ahead in order to best plant clues, create plot twists, and create a suspenseful and interesting plot.

It was foreign to me at first, writing with an outline, but it certainly helped me, and now I can't write without one. It's certainly no coincidence that the first thing I wrote with an outline became the book that landed me an agent and eventually was published!

I don't have a particular title on the craft to recommend, but if you're struggling with plot, it'd be great to read a book on how to write a mystery, even if you're not a mystery writer. There are tips to be found in mystery plotting that could benefit anyone writing a novel.

(I also recommend watching a lot of "Law & Order." Especially SVU. I like Detective Munch.)

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

I'm not just a librarian, I'm a second-generation librarian! My parents were both librarians. I'm 100% librarian. But when I graduated from college (with a degree in Political Science of all things) I had no interest in the field.

What were my career goals? I don't even remember. I think I wanted to be a rock star or maybe a hobo. But I ended up taking a job at a library just because it fell in my lap through some connections my parents had.

I worked as a desk clerk for a while and then ended up going to graduate school. I got a Masters Degree in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh.

While at Pitt, I took a course on young adult literature. I was dimly aware of the YA scene before then, but quite a lightbulb went off when I took this class. I had been dabbling at being a writer, mostly articles and stories, but I had one almost-book-length manuscript in the drawer about a group of high school kids trying to buy beer. I thought it was too inappropriate to be for young people and felt like you never read adult novels about high school kids.

But then, for my YA class, I read Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 1996). In the first scene, the main character is planting marijuana seeds in the dirt of a houseplant in his guidance counselor's office. It was like "Wow, anything goes in YA!"

Plus, the whole book was funny and angsty and interesting in all the ways that I wanted my writing to be. Then I read people like John Green and Blake Nelson and Louise Rennison and Francesca Lia Block and so many authors who were doing wonderful things in YA. I felt like it was precisely where I wanted to go as a writer.

After finishing library school and working at the library, I started to think seriously about becoming a YA novelist myself. Those first few attempts did not go anywhere. The book that became my debut novel was my third book-length manuscript. And it's not quite as edgy as I originally thought I'd be, but I was deeply inspired by all those authors I read in library school (and continue to check out of the library every day).

So, what I'm trying to say is that my entire career as an author sprang directly out of being a librarian! I make no effort to separate the two identities. They're part of the same package.

It's been great to be plugged in to the literature scene as part of my "day job" and being a writer has certainly made me a better librarian. It's a cool day job. Being a librarian is so much better than being a rock star. Or a hobo.

Cynsational Notes

Josh Berk is the author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf, 2010) and a second comedy/mystery teen novel coming from Knopf in 2011. He has previously been a journalist, a poet, a playwright, and a guitarist (mostly in bands known for things other than fine guitar-playing). He is a librarian and lives in a cornfield in Allentown, Pennsylvania; with his family.

Don't miss the celebratory musical video below, "Release Day."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Guest Post: Heather Hepler on Writing, Food and Cookies for Weeping

By Heather Hepler

Anyone who has read my novels will already know that I have a "thing" for food.

Two of my novels even have food in the titles. I hesitate to call myself a "foodie," but I probably fit the definition.

I love food. I like to make it, eat it, and look at it. I like to read about it and think about it. Grocery stores fascinate me. I can spend hours exploring their aisles.

So, it’s really no surprise that all of my books contain references to food. My characters bake cookies and brew coffee and discuss the merits of mango lassies. One of my characters is obsessed with candy. Another character thinks he’s the next big thing to hit the world of competitive eating.

I can wax poetic about a perfect pyramid of red apples or the smell of fresh-baked bread. I have a recipe for making the perfect chocolate chip cookies, and I can make the best pecan brittle anyone has ever tasted. I can do these things because I know a secret. And I’m going to share it with you.

All you need is a recipe, a little creativity, and the willingness to make mistakes. And trust me; I have made some big mistakes. The amazing thing is that this formula of mine is the same one I use when I write.

The recipe for writing is less complicated than the recipe for making puff pastry. You need some standard ingredients: a setting and some characters are enough to start. That’s your base; your standard cookie recipe.

After you put that together, the fun begins. You get to know your characters. You see what they like, what they don’t like. You see if they have problems getting along with one another. (For instance, cookies made with wasabi and toffee might be a bit problematic, but they would be interesting.)

This is where there is some disagreement. There are bakers and writers who like a plan. They like to know exactly where they are going; how to get there; and what to expect at the end. There are others who are more comfortable with using a recipe as a general guide. They aren’t really sure where they’re headed. They don’t really know what they’ll have at the end.

I tend to fall into the second group. I like to be surprised when I open the oven door. Sometimes it’s a good surprise, like when I decided to add spicy mustard to my gingerbread recipe. Other times, things don’t go exactly as I would have liked. (Salmon mousse anyone?)

Beyond that is a willingness to fail. Whether you plan to change the world of chocolate chip cookies or write a stunning novel, you need to be willing to make some mistakes along the way. You might need to go back to your base (your setting and characters) or rethink some of your ingredients (your plot twists).

And while I can’t give you a specific recipe for the next “Great American Novel,” I can give you a great one for chocolate chip cookies that might just make you weep with joy.

Cookies for Weeping

1 ½ cups whole wheat flour (Graham flour is best if you can find it.)

1 t baking soda

Pinch salt

2 sticks butter, softened (use real butter)

1 ½ cups dark brown sugar

1 egg

1 t vanilla

1 ½ cups rolled oats

1 cup dried cherries

6 oz chocolate chips

1 cup toffee pieces


1. Combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

2. Cream butter and sugar. To this, add the egg and the vanilla. Mix again.

3. Add dry ingredients and oats, Mix gently.

4. Add cherries, toffee, and chocolate chips. Mix until just combined.

5. Chill dough.

6. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto lined baking sheet.

7. Bake 350 10-12 minutes

8. Eat. Bring a tissue. These might inspire some tears.

Cynsational Notes

Heather Hepler grew up in North Texas. She has lived in Reno, on the coast of Maine, in interior of Alaska, and near Death Valley, but she currently lives in Tyler, Texas; where she is still getting used to heat, the East Texas accent, and the astounding obsession that women in Tyler have with big hair.

She works as a reviewer for various publications, including Kirkus Reviews. She is the co-author of Scrambled Eggs at Midnight (Dutton, 2006), Dream Factory (Dutton, 2007), and Jars of Glass (Dutton, 2008). Her first solo novel, The Cupcake Queen, was published in September 2009. Her writing has also appeared in the Southwest Review and the Cincinnati Review.

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Voice: Lindsey Leavitt on Princess for Hire

Lindsey Leavitt is the first-time author of Princess for Hire (Hyperion, 2010). From the promotional copy:

When an immaculately dressed woman steps out of an iridescent bubble and asks you if you'd like to become a substitute princess, do you a) run b) faint c) say Yes!

For Desi Bascomb, who's been longing for a bit of glamour in her Idaho life, the choice is a definite C--that is, once she can stop pinching herself.

As her new agent Meredith explains, Desi has a rare magical ability: when she applies the ancient Egyptian formula "Royal Rouge," she can transform temporarily into the exact lookalike of any princess who needs her subbing services.

Dream come true, right?

Well, Desi soon discovers that subbing involves a lot more than wearing a tiara and waving at cameras. Like, what do you do when a bullying older sister puts you on a heinous crash diet? Or when the tribal villagers gather to watch you perform a ceremonial dance you don't know? Or when a princess's conflicted sweetheart shows up to break things off--and you know she would want you to change his mind?

In this hilarious, winning debut, one girl's dream of glamour transforms into something bigger: the desire to make a positive impact. And an impact Desi makes, one royal fiasco at a time.


Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

When my agent, Sarah Davies, signed me, all I had was a rough draft of Princess for Hire. I had queried her with another novel (Sean Griswold's Head, out with Bloomsbury in early 2011), so I knew from the beginning that we would need to revise before submitting Princess for Hire.

Part of the reason I signed with Sarah was because of her editorial background, and that was invaluable as together we really hammered out my main character’s personality. I felt proud of the book when it went out on submission.

Although I wrote Princess for Hire as a standalone, I knew it had series potential, so I wrote a paragraph outlining sequel ideas. From this, Hyperion offered me a three-book-deal.

Three books, y'all.


I didn’t hesitate for a second when Sarah asked if I could do it. Of course! The hard part was over. All I had to do was squeal at my cover and dance on the happy publishing rainbow of dewdrops and skittles.

And then I got my first revision letter. My nine page, single-spaced revision letter that broke down what we would need to do to take this standalone into series-land, including cutting the last half of the book.

Oh, I bawled. I thought my editor must hate me. I started to wonder if they had bought the book simply because they liked the title. I asked my friends how long their revision letters were and figured the shear length was a direct indication of my Lack of Writing Skills.

And then I started working on it. And my editor was right. I took probably 98% of her suggestions and re-wrote, re-tweaked, re-thought. I turned it back in (early!), secure in the fact that I had polished this puppy up!

And then I got my second revision letter. My twelve page, single-spaced letter that analyzed every new scene, explored the motivation behind it, and asked how this would matter in books 2 and 3. And I wondered how my light, fluffy book could require so much, you know, work.

But, again, I did it. And I went from despair to relief that I had such a great editor to guide me in developing this series. As is the case with most books, my book is what it is because of my editor’s hard work. Not everyone will love Princess for Hire, or even like it, but having gone through those revisions, I feel it really is the best I could do.

So I would advise other writers to really have an open mind to revision. If someone suggests something you’re not sure about, try it. You lose nothing (except for maybe time, a bit of sanity, and your waistline as you consume mass amounts of candy) but often gain new insights into your character or scene that only come from a fresh take.

Also, in the excellent writer’s workbook, Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison (Mim’s House, 2008), Darcy suggests you write out the heart of the novel and keep it in mind as you revise. Anytime you get a note you aren’t sure about, check to see if the revision would bring you closer to your novel’s heart. That’s something you never want to lose.

As someone who's the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I get this question a lot, and I’ve struggled to answer it because sometimes I don’t feel like I’m managing.

Sometimes, I stop writing and instead start Google-ing “How to Make a Clone” (sadly, it’s a very messy and difficult process). I have three kids, ages five and under, so you can imagine how difficult it can be to not only find the time to write, but the brain power to form coherent, let alone publishable, sentences.

That said, I have come up with two solutions that help me balance being a full-time momma and writer.

1. Flexibility, or what I call "Lunchable Weeks"

Early on, I learned publishing’s timelines can be unpredictable. And you can’t really control these crazy schedules. They’re no one’s fault; your publisher is on your side and often will do what they can to help you maintain sanity.

But it’s likely to happen at some point that your editor will tell you your edits will be in next week, and so you arrange babysitting or lighten your day job load in anticipation and…the edits never come. Another project got thrown on your editor’s endless pile, or she got sick, or she wanted to run something by sales. So they come three weeks later, and you have, oh, a week to get them back.

Enter the Lunchable(s). Now, I try to make my two older girls sensible lunches on the days they go to school. I do. But some weeks, I look at the amount of work I have and decide, this is a Lunchable week.

Meaning, this week I’m going to let a few things slide. The laundry becomes a teetering mountain of stank. My eyebrows and backyard become a bushy mess. My kids' playroom takes on a life of its own. And email and phone calls and, you know, life is going to pile up.

And this is all okay. I’m not going to be supermom, or even showered mom, during these times. I go with the flow, get my work done, and then return back to the Land of the Living.

2. Perspective

I think this is a lesson every debut author has to learn. You have to figure out what your priorities in life are and make peace with them because there is always more you can do when it comes to writing. Another book, a more professional book trailer, a blog tour, a school visit... if you let it, writing (and even more so the business of writing) can swallow the rest of your life whole.

I decided when I signed my first book deal that I was going to do what I could do to have a successful career at this, but in the end, I would rather fail at writing than fail as a mom or as a wife or as a functioning member of society.

You have to figure out how much you can do and let go of the rest.

Cynsational Notes

In the videos below, join Lindsey Leavitt at The King's English - March 20:





For this final video, "[b]ecause the questions are a little hard to hear, here they are."

Is this your 1st book?
What was your journey like?
Does your mind think in small stories or long book stories?
Do you have a writing routine/schedule/habit?


Join the Nerd Herd at Tonight's Geektastic Twitter Chat

Join anthologists Holly Black @hollyblack and Cecil Castellucci @cecilseaskull, along with authors Libba Bray @LIBBABRAY, Cassandra Clare @cassieclare, Barry Lyga, Tracy Lynn @TracyLynntastic, Wendy Mass, and Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith @CynLeitichSmith for a #GEEKTASTIC tweet chat in celebration of the paperback release of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (Little, Brown, 2010).

The chat is scheduled for 5 p.m. PST, 6 p.m. MST, 7 p.m. CST, and 8 p.m. EST on July 12.

My contribution is "The Wrath of Dawn," co-authored by Greg, which is a love letter of sorts to little sisters as well as fans of "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" and (to a lesser extent) "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

But more than that, it's a tribute to the long-standing tradition of bringing in a teen character to add more youth to a show and, in the depiction/execution, somehow vexing a fair portion of the fan base.

As YA authors, it occurred to us that maybe we should be on the side of the awkward teen rather than those scorning him/her. And maybe everybody else be should, too.

Since Geektastic was first released last year in hard cover, it's been a treat to discuss it with YA readers, many of whom have first come to "Buffy" through syndication, DVD releases, graphic novels, or the "Buffy: Season Eight" comic from Dark Horse.


I must admit, I envy them.

Imagine seeing "Buffy" from season one, episode one for the first time!

"The earth is doomed!" -- Giles

From the promotional copy:

Acclaimed authors Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci have united in geekdom to edit short stories from some of the best-selling and most promising geeks in young adult literature: M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, John Green, Tracy Lynn, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Barry Lyga, Wendy Mass, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfield, Lisa Yee, and Sara Zarr.

With illustrated interstitials from comic book artists Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O'Malley, Geektastic covers all things geeky, from Klingons and Jedi Knights to fan fiction, theater geeks, and cosplayers.

Whether you're a former, current, or future geek, or if you just want to get in touch with your inner geek, Geektastic will help you get your geek on!
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