Saturday, September 11, 2010

New Voice-Literacy Activist: Riley Carney on The Reign of the Elements series and Breaking the Chain

Riley Carney is the first-time author of The Fire Stone: Book One of The Reign of the Elements and The Water Stone: Book Two of The Reign of the Elements (both BookLight Press, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy of The Fire Stone:

Matt knows how to shovel hay, dig trenches, and dodge his father’s whip.

But when three terrifying creatures attack him, and he is rescued by a wizard, kidnaps a baby alorath, and is befriended by elves, Matt’s life transforms overnight from dreary to astonishing.

He unwittingly joins a quest to find the Fire Stone, one of the elusive Stones of the Elements which have the power to destroy the world, and is thrust into a string of perilous adventures.

Matt soon discovers that magic does exist and that he has extraordinary powers that can change his destiny and determine the fate of Mundaria.


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 am a plotter. I wasn’t always a plotter, I became one out of necessity.

Before I wrote The Fire Stone, I had struggled for several years to write the same story. I would write about seventy pages, and then it would occur to me that I had absolutely no idea where I was going with it, and I would hit a wall. Eventually, I would begin again – but to no avail!

I did that over and over until I realized that I needed to have a plan.

When I wrote The Fire Stone, my first book, I sat down and did something I had never done before. I wrote an outline. When I actually started writing the book, I wrote the first draft in less than a month because I worked so efficiently off my outline. Now, whenever I start to write a book, I begin with an outline.

I begin with a few notes about my story, explore my characters a bit, maybe even write a page or two. Once my idea has begun to grown, I will construct the basic plot points. I start with a very bare-bones sketch of what I think might happen. Then, I begin to add to that skeleton.

I outline the story chapter by chapter, allowing up to a page of prose to describe each chapter. I begin to put in details so that everything fits together, but also so that I can remember important things that I want to add to certain scenes. Often, I’ll even add snippets of dialogue, humor, or emotion into certain scenes in the outline.

When I begin to write I give myself as much freedom as I want to add, delete, or change directions. I have changed major characters and added whole chapters to my story that weren't in my original outline. I still have the option to let my characters alter the story, but using an outline ensures that the story actually gets written.

After the story is written, it can always be edited and tweaked until it feels right. The editing process is easier than the creative process, so, my writing motto is: "just get it on the page," and the only way the writing will always get on the page is with an outline.

Beginning every book with an outline has been the reason that I’ve been able to write eight books in the past two years.

As a fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I have always loved reading fantasy. I grew up with an older brother, and his love of magic and other worlds began to influence me very early in my life.

I have always been surrounded by books, movies, and toys that were fantasy and/or science fiction.

Some of my favorite fantasy books growing up were the Redwall series by Brian Jacques (Philomel, 1986-2010). I loved the idea of talking mice running an abbey and battling snakes, rats, and other foul creatures with swords and other medieval weaponry. We loved Redwall so much that we had a pet mouse named Martin after one of the main characters.

We also loved the Merlin series by T.A. Barron (Penguin Group, 1996-2000), the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer (Viking, 2001-), and, most importantly, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 1997-2007).

Books like Harry Potter transported me to new, amazing worlds where anything was possible. It was only natural that I would want to create my own enchanted stories filled with danger and adventure. I hope that I am able to help other kids love to read and to feel the same elation that I feel when I escape to a magical land.


Could you tell us about Breaking the Chain? What inspired you to found the organization, and what are its goals? What are some of the organization's accomplishments to date?

I grew up surrounded by books, and the importance of education was emphasized by my parents. I always knew reading was important.

When I was fourteen, the summer before going into high school, I learned that over 120 million kids around the world are denied access to a basic education, and that over 126 million kids, ages 5-17, work in hazardous conditions.

Additionally, in the United States, 1.2 million kids drop out of school annually. These statistics are heartbreaking, especially since there is a direct correlation between poverty and literacy.

I wanted to do whatever I could to change those statistics, so I created Breaking the Chain three years ago with the goal of breaking the chains of poverty for children by creating literacy opportunities.

Breaking the Chain has built three schools in Africa and provided water purification systems and alternative income for two of those villages.

In the United States, we created a children’s literacy center at a Women in Crisis shelter in Colorado and bought thousands of books for different reading programs around the country.

Also in the United States, we have a program called Bookin’It which has put more than 12,000 new books into classrooms in low-literacy/high-need elementary schools.

I am very excited about this program because it can have such a significant influence on children’s literacy. Most of these children do not have books in their homes, so it is imperative that they have books at school or they will never learn to read.

We focus on elementary schools because that is the most critical time for literacy; if a child does not learn to read by the fourth or fifth grade, he/she will probably remain illiterate.

I have also spoken to more than 10,000 kids over the past nine months at schools around the U.S. about literacy, risking failure to achieve dreams, the value of education, and the importance of reaching out to help others.


I hope that Breaking the Chain can continue to promote education opportunities for at-risk children for many years to come.

Currently, three billion people around the world live in extreme poverty. I hope that we can expand to affect as many children as possible, since literacy is the most important component of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Cynsational Notes

Riley, age 17, was 15 when she wrote The Fire Stone and next two books in The Reign of the Elements series. She wrote the last two books in the series when she was 16 and recently completed a YA urban fantasy trilogy. Three years ago, she founded Breaking the Chain, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating children's illiteracy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Voice: Kristin Walker on A Match Made In High School

Kristin Walker is the first-time author of A Match Made In High School (Razorbill, 2010). From the promotional copy:

When the principal announces that every senior must participate in a mandatory year-long Marriage Education program, Fiona Sheehan believes that her life can't get any worse.

Then she marries her "husband": jerky jock Todd, whose cheerleader girlfriend, Amanda, has had it in for Fiona since day one of second grade. Even worse? Amanda is paired with Fiona's long-term crush, Gabe.

At least Fiona is doing better than her best friend, Marcie, who is paired up with the very quiet, very mysterious Johnny Mercer.

Pranks, fights, misunderstandings, and reconciliations ensue in an almost Shakespearean comedy of errors about mistaken first impressions, convoluted coupling, and hidden crushes.


Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2010, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Looking back, it does seem inevitable that it would land at the ten-year mark, but looking forward from ten years ago, I certainly didn’t think so.

Just after I started writing children’s books, I went to a conference and sat in on an author panel. Deborah Wiles was one of the panelists, and at one point, she held up a copy of her debut middle grade novel, Love, Ruby Lavender (Harcourt, 2001), and said, “See this? This took ten years.”

I bristled and thought, Ha, not me. It’ll take me a year. Two, tops.

What a dope I was.

So fast-forward ten years, and here I am with my first published book in my hand. I wish I could have actually fast-forwarded through the slush-slogging, but in truth, those are the years I learned how to write.

I didn’t go to school for it. The closest thing I’d done was take a college course in creative writing in which my instructor gave me the back-handed compliment that she thought I had a great future writing advertisements. Actually, that wasn’t really a compliment at all, now that I think about it.

So I learned by doing, which really means that I learned by screwing up over and over again in different and spectacular ways. In my defense, I did try to educate myself. I read how-to books, I joined SCBWI, I went to conferences and tried not to seem like a crazy stalker when I made small-talk with editors (and failed a few times, I’m afraid).

No genre was spared in my quest for publication, either. I tried picture books, poetry, early readers, chapter books, a nauseatingly saccharine middle grade novel, and even a series of palindromes. (Go help, Miss! Golfer of Delley (never even yelled, “Fore”) flogs simple hog!)

I sold two kids’ poems and two Chicken Soup for the Soul essays.

A while ago, Ladybug Magazine accepted a story of mine, but they haven’t used it yet. It's been so long, I might have to rewrite it because the girl in the story uses a camera with film.

Finally, I scored with my young adult novel. I really had nowhere else to go in children’s books, so it’s a good thing this one sold, ha-ha!

Along the way, I accumulated over 200 rejections. It was often difficult to keep going, and I wanted to quit many times. Luckily, I have a very encouraging, supportive husband and wonderful, patient children. This book is as much theirs as mine. Publication was definitely a family effort.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Lately, I feel like there have been two phases to this book: writing it, and promoting it. Equally difficult and demanding. Equally thrilling and rewarding.

The only difference is, if I take a break from writing, nobody notices. But I have to keep on top of promotion every day.

A new book will likely be off the shelves in three months, so I have to do everything I can to forestall that while I have the chance. It’s become my temporary full-time job.

Luckily for me, most of my target market (teens) live online. I’ve really reached out to book review bloggers, and done my best to take the hands of those who’ve reached out to me. And I love them! They’re so smart and well-read, and they treat authors like rock stars. How could I not love them?

And Razorbill was so proactive about sending out ARCs, which has been vital to connecting with bloggers. I’ve done my best to accommodate anyone who wanted to do a review of A Match Made In High School as well as anyone who asked for an interview or guest post.

Basically, I never pass up the opportunity to get my book in front of people’s eyes. That includes being on social media sites, as well. I’m on LiveJournal with a feed to Blogger. I have profiles on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Goodreads, JacketFlap, and more.

And I’m an introvert, which may seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. I can post curled up in bed, if I feel like it. I can take my time with how I present myself. The thing I find most challenging is when I get attention in real life and have to promote my book face-to-face. I’ll get over it, but it might be in baby steps.

My husband is much more of a salesman and extrovert than I am, and one of the brilliantly crazy things he did was contact a Temple University PR student named Jessica Lawlor, who agreed to help me out with promotion. She’s been fabulous.

She facilitated so much of the book blogger and social media action. She got me on Twitter and taught me how to make a press release. She contacted newspapers and got me bookings on podcast radio shows. She has remained enthusiastic and driven, all while being an insanely accomplished student. Publishers, take note, because she graduates in May and will be looking for a job. Snap her up!

One thing Jessica and my husband both have done is keep me motivated and on-track, even when I’m going nuts. It’s important to keep my promotional tasks organized.

I have Excel spreadsheets listing all the bloggers I’ve worked with, as well as every review. I have a master to-do list, and I just try to take care of whatever I can each day.

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed, and sometimes it does seem like a chore, but those are the times I have to step back (or get a good butt-kicking) and remember that I am incredibly lucky to be promoting my very own published book.

Cynsational Notes

Kristin Walker lives in a Chicago suburb with her husband and three sons.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

On the Act of Writing by Cate Tiernan from Teenreads.com. Peek: "I’m trying to interpret the world around me (and the world inside me), and I’m trying to express that in a way that others will understand, and perhaps come to see themselves in, at least a little bit."

Habits of a Working Writer by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "You must begin to think like a writer–and that will lead you to acting like a writer. Then you’ll build the habits of a writer–and eventually you will get to enjoy the benefits of being a writer."

Books for Children about Grandparents from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's Literature. Notes: can you suggest some recent releases to add to the list? Grandparents Day is Sept. 12.

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 2, the Physical Relationship Between Text and Image; Part 3, the Conceptual Relationship Between Text and Image; Part 4, Pictures Leading the Narrative from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Don't miss Part 1, the Physicality of a Picture Book (and Continued).

Reading Aloud: An Effective Editorial Tool by Mary Lindsey from QueryTracker.net. Peek: "The human mind compensates for errors. When reading, mistakes are missed because the brain anticipates patterns and corrects inconsistencies automatically. Reading out loud forces the reader to slow the rate, which helps identify errors."

The Pirate Code of Children's Literature by Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director, Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Peek: "A lot of editors will suggest that you make your protagonist a year or two older than your anticipated reader. Kids older or younger might read and love the book, but the targeted reader is probably in a narrow age band."

Margaret Manuel's I See Me: a board book recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "The child shown on the cover is on each page. Some pages are about the things all babies do (smile, cry) and some are things specific to Native cultures."

Author Guest Post: Kimberley Griffiths Little on the Book Trailer for The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010) from Jess at The Cozy Reader. Peek: "Nua Music wrote the original music for the trailer and created the sound design as well as doing final work on all the images to make them match in color and texture as well as producing the video and doing the opening and ending images, credits, etc." Note: Scholastic is offering the full song as a free download. Listen to "Treater Woman," and learn more about The Healing Spell.

Eleven Great Multicultural Blogs: complied by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "...focus specifically on ethnic and cultural diversity in the Kid/YA book world."

Call for Mentors: Middle Grade and YA from Sacha. Peek: "I am hoping to start a new session of my online mentoring project for middle grade and young adult authors. The plan is to pair up a fledgling writer with a published or soon to be published author." Note: the program runs two months and the anticipated time commitment is about an hour a week. Source: Mandy Hubbard.

Teachers, Librarians and Homeschool Groups: Enter to Win a Skype Author Visit or Six Autographed Books with a Back-to-School Writing Activity by Carmela A. Martino at Teaching Authors. Deadline 11 p.m. CST Oct. 4.

Interview with Newbery Honor Author Kathi Appelt from Bobbi Miller. Peek: "I’ve begun to consider fantasy in a larger sweep — including tall tales, folk tales, superhero stories, magical realism, etc."

How to Deal with Contradictory Query Advice from Nathan Bransford. Peek: "Consider the source, consider the freshness of the advice, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you that there's one way and only one way to find successful publication."

SLJ's Trailie Awards Asks Readers to Vote for Their Favorite Book Trailer by SLJ staff from School Library Journal. Peek: "Voters must select the best video in six categories: publisher/author created for elementary readers (PreK-6); publisher/author created for secondary readers (7-12 grade); student created for elementary readers (PreK-6 grade); student created for secondary readers (7-12 grade); adult (anyone over 18) created for elementary readers (PreK-6 grade); and adult created for secondary readers (7-12 grade)."

This is Why You Always Meet Your Deadlines by Eric from Pimp My Novel. Peek: "...this business is slow enough as-is, so as debut writers who always want to make the best of impressions, it's in your collective best interest to get your manuscripts and revisions delivered on time." Source: Elizabeth Scott.

Creating Your Main Character by Cynthia Watson from Carolyn Kaufman at QueryTracker.net. Peek: "Does my main character behave logically, i.e., does he have common sense, worthy goals readers can relate to?"

Tweet Round-up by Alice Pope from Alice Pope's SCBWI Market Guide. Note: terrific list; well worth a careful read through. See Author Advice with Kate Messner: Making Time to Write from Lesley Says. Peek: "Along with my teaching job and family, I’ve managed to write four novels, two chapter books, and three picture books over the past three years." See also 12 Ways to Create Suspense by Gail Carson Levine from Ingrid's Notes.

The Importance of Sitting in One Place and Reading by Craig A. Platt from Art Bystander. Peek: "I am reading. My mouth slightly bitter from the drink I am enjoying. This is a true feeling of calm." Source: @Candlewick.

Hunger Mountain

Congratulations to editors Bethany Hegedus (in red) and Kekla Magoon (in purple) on the September issue of Hunger Mountain: Young Adult and Children's Literature. Check out the articles:

The Q in GLBTQ is for Questioning. Don’t let it be for Quandary or Quagmire. by Sara Ryan. Peek: "So how do you, as a writer, represent the complexity of sexuality, let alone gender identity?"

Controversy, Catharsis, and the Odd Couple by Alex Sanchez. Peek: "By coaxing, cajoling, and convincing me to write about topics I cringe at, my insistent muse has helped me to heal those old wounds. He’s given me the courage I lack."

Releasing Pain Through Writing by Cheryl Rainfield. Peek: "Novels were a big part of my survival in childhood—and a big part of my healing. I was always reading to know I wasn’t alone or crazy like my abusers said I was, as well as reading for escape from my own trauma."

What My Last Book Taught Me: A Subconscious Gift by Malinda Lo. Peek: "I wanted it to be not only normal that she fell in love with another woman; I wanted others to envy her romance. Just like Cinderella."

Color Me Perplexed by Nikki Grimes. Peek: "What makes a librarian, or teacher, or a parent for that matter, assume that a book is inappropriate, or of diminished value to a child simply because the character on the cover is of a different race?" Note: Nikki's YA novel A Girl Named Mister was released by Zondervan in August.

GLBTQ Teen Coming Out Stories: Move Beyond Them, or Keep ‘Em Coming? by Lee Wind. Note: "An Imaginary Yang and Yin Dialog by One Writer of Two Minds."

Think Like a Director by Sarah Aronson. Peek: "...we see the images as dictated by the viewpoint character. The narrative voice modulates our image of the fictive world. We can jump in time. We can speed up; we can slow down."

Walking the Song Lines--Picture Book Revision: Shaping the Text by Sarah Sullivan. Peek: "I can see now that I needed to tell that story first before I could find a way to build the foundation for what the book was really about. It was in the second draft that I started to discover the theme that would provide the framework for the book."

Authentic Latino Voices by Mayra Lazara Dole. Peek: "When the media, journal reviewers and publishers list books as 'Latino' or 'Hispanic,' instead of, let’s say, Cuban-American or Nicaraguan-American, it leads children and teens to believe our culture and celebrations are identical."

Diversity in Picture Books by Melanie Hope Greenberg. Peek: "Tolerance and democracy are practiced on the New York City subways. This is the world I see on a daily basis. A world that is not homogenized. The characters in my books now have various skin shades, cultures, and genders, reflecting the world that I experience."

Interview with author and publisher Cheryl Willis Hudson, Co-Founder of Just Us Books by Kekla Magoon. Peek: "The stories must be authentically centered in African American life and culture. So we pay special attention to voices from the African American community because they reflect who we are and what we are about."

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Halo by Alexandra Adornetto (Feiwel and Friends, 2010). Note: from Alexandra's bio Alexandra Adornetto was fourteen when she published her first book, The Shadow Thief, in Australia.... Alex lives in Melbourne, Australia; Halo marks her U.S. debut."



Watch this video interview with author Alexandra Adornetto, age 18, from Macmillan Children's.



Check out the book trailer for Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick (Simon Pulse, 2009, 2010).



Reminder: The launch party for Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. (Kari) Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, 2010) will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 12 at BookPeople in Austin. See also Kari's rundown of the awesome things that will be happening Sunday (including, but not limited to: giant floating ice brains, Kari: zombified).



More Personally

Happy belated anniversary to my very cute husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith. I woke up to these roses on Saturday morning. Note: earlier this week, he announced the sale of his next novel, The Chronal Engine: Ahead of Time, to Clarion (2012); see more information.


What else? I'm pleased to announce that Turkish language editions of Tantalize and Eternal will be published by Artemis Yayinlari in Istanbul.

My favorite quirky link this week is The Alphabet Carved in Pencil Leads from jama rattigan's alphabet soup.

How They Do It: Guest Blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith on Process from Janice Hardy at The Other Side of the Story. Peek: "I do still exchange manuscripts with...Greg Leitich Smith. We met as first-year law students, and we're much more direct with each other than we'd ever be with anyone else. Imagine receiving a manuscript marked, 'No way is this going out of the house with the family name on it.'"

Giveaway Reminders

Calling all Goddess Girls! Enter to win an autographed Goddess Girls: Aphrodite the Beauty by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2010), plus an Aphrodite the Beauty swag bag, featuring: 24-color eyeshadow from Claire’s; seven lip glosses with faux rhinestones; multicolor bracelet; Goddess Girls bookmark.

To enter, just email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Aphrodite" in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to privately message me with the title in the header or comment on this post. Deadline: midnight CST, Sept. 9. U.S. entries only. See also a Cynsations guest post by authors Joan and Suzanne.

Surf over to Mundie Moms to read the latest interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, and enter to win bookplate-signed copies of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! All you have to do is fill out a short form. Deadline: Sept. 15; U.S. entries only.

Holiday Catch-up

For those who may have missed a post or two over the Labor Day weekend:


Web Designer Update: Lisa Firke on the Redesign of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com from Cynsations. Peek: "One of the more subtle ways I’ve tried to distinguish between your role as author and your role as curator of the literature resources is the horizon line in the masthead image."

New Voice: Inara Scott on Delcroix Academy: The Candidates (Hyperion, 2010) from Cynsations. Peek: "I did not originally connect the events in my novel with current events. I wanted to challenge the dualistic paradigm usually seen in fantasy novels because I found that fascinating, not because of any particular issue in the real world. Yet at the same time...." See also Cover Stories: Inara Scott on Delcroix Academy from Melissa Walker.

And finally, I posted some pics of a party at my house in honor of Anne Bustard's and Lindsey Lane's recent completion of their MFA degrees in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne and Lindsey graduated in the July 2010 class. Both are published picture book authors.

Illustrators Mary Sullivan (in black and red) and C.A. "Christy" Stallop (in black and denim) chat in the foreground while illustrator Erik Kuntz and VCFA grad and author Lindsey Lane visit in the background.

Cynsational Events


The Smart Chicks Kick It Tour begins in Austin with authors Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Alyson Noel, Holly Black, Rachel Caine and Cassandra Clare at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 at BookPeople. See the whole schedule from Mary E. Pearson.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Shutta Crum

Learn about Shutta Crum.

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

Well, I've always loved children's literature at all levels. However, here is the story of how I specifically came to writing one idea three ways.

Like many writers, poetry was my first love--as far as the written word is concerned. I'd had a number of my poems for adults published in literary journals and taught creative writing at the local community college.

So, when Cynthia Rylant's When I Was Young in the Mountains, illustrated by Diane Goode (Dutton, 1982) came out in the first part of the 1980s . . . I was incensed! She'd written my story, the one I kept thinking I'd get around to writing one day.

At any rate, she moved me to write a poem about going to Kentucky (from Michigan) to visit my grandparents when I was young, which I did almost every summer. So I wrote a poem about all the things I loved in the Appalachian mountains of southeast Kentucky.

When I took it to my poetry critique group, they said it sounded like there was more to the story. Perhaps it was a kid's book? Hmmm, I thought.

So I wrote a picture book from this poem. When I showed it to some friends, and submitted to Joan W. Blos' editor (Newbery winner Joan is another Ann Arborite and a friend.), the response I got back was that it felt like there was more to my main character's story.

Hmm . . . I started a novel which became Spitting Image (Clarion, 2003).


In the meantime, I had submitted "Melvin, Me, and Morning Glory" (the original title of My Mountain Song, illustrated by Ted Rand (Clarion, 2004)) to the Writer's Digest annual contest. It came in 17th place among a field of tens of thousands! That made me more confident with it. So I sent it to Clarion.


At home, I was busily working on the extended version, the novel. One day I got a call, and I crabbily answered the phone. I'd been interrupted a zillion times already that day.

It turned out to be Dinah Stevenson from Clarion with an offer on the picture book. Great!

I quickly apologized for being so gruff on the phone, but explained that I'd been working on a novel all day and had gotten many interruptions.

She said, "no problem" and asked what the novel was about.

So I told her, and she said, "Send it to me when you finish."

I was flabbergasted! This was my first novel attempt! I didn't even know if I could finish a first draft yet--I hadn't gotten that far.

She said not to worry. Just send it when I got it finished.

A year or so later, I sent her Spitting Image, which they bought as well.

In the course of things, the novel came out first, since we did not need an illustrator. It took four years for the picture book to come out as we were waiting for Ted Rand to get to it--a perfect choice. Well worth waiting for.

To sum it up: a poem became a picture book became a novel; however, the novel was published before the picture book. I have never submitted the poem anywhere yet.

In this case, it was poetry that facilitated the longer books. And poetry is what I believe should be at the core of all writing.

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

The formats I mostly write in are poetry, picture book (poetry and prose), the chapter book, and the middle-grade novel. In addition, I do write some articles for professional publications.

If I were to say that one type of writing informed another that I do, I would have to say that poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry--a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)--whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it. I would even say this is important for nonfiction, though I do not write nonfiction except for magazine articles.

There are certain conventions in western literature that we often take for granted. The series of three in kids' books (except for in certain cultures, such as Native American). If we veer too far from this there can be a sense on the reader's part that the telling is somehow awkward, though the reader may not be able to pinpoint what that is.

And if the writing includes rhythmic and internal rhyme, there is something pleasing about that to the ear that makes it all seem to flow, often without the reader consciously aware of it.

A little more than half my picture books are in verse. But looking at all my prose books, from the picture book to the novel, I've found that those manuscripts needed an amassing of emotion at certain turning points. That emotion is more memorable because I used strong alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor or other poetical techniques--even caesura--at those points.

And in a novel, the recurring use of symbols can be an especially useful tool.

Symbols and metaphors are short cuts that allow the writer to keep the text short but get the full impact. And strong similes can pack an emotional punch. One of my favorites is by M.T. Anderson from his novel, The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic, 2004). "About time you struck out on your own, instead of sticking to your friend like a tapeworm in a dowager's belly."


So when I come to a tight spot in a novel, I try to relax and think, how would I write this if it were a poem? Do I need something visual on the page--a break? A chant, a quote, a bit of poetry written as such? In my book Thomas and the Dragon Queen, illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2010), there are several places where I invoke the use of the poetical line, such as in the scene where Thomas must swear fealty to his king.

As far as the picture book translating directly to the novel, this only happens for me when I have a main character that I have not had room to develop fully in the picture book. (As in the instance above with My Mountain Song.)

Characters do need to be fully developed in a picture book, but it is of the moment--like a snapshot. A novel is more like a whole photo album, and we see the character(s) in many situations.

As for the novel translating directly to a picture book, I have not had that experience yet. However, I see where it could happen. I can envision several scenes from my novels that could be played out in very specific detail, but in fewer words than in a novel.

Again, that is where poetry comes in handy. One can get very detailed with few words and let one example stand for the many.

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

Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be "branded," though I do understand why some publishers do it.

Personally, I get very bored doing the same old thing. I don't know if I could do a series. I am trying to write a follow-up book to Thomas and the Dragon Queen and am not sure I will be able to finish it.

We writers are like any other artists--we love variety. I do mosaics and quilt art. I have never been able to do a repeat of either. I even have a hard time when I want to use a traditional quilt design. I always end up changing something--making it my own.

We need to follow the whims of our hearts--wherever that takes us. In fact, I sold a "fantasy" picture book about a toddler who creates the world to Disney/Hyperion, a couple of years ago. It is in process now and was based on an old African-American chant. I am looking forward to its eventual publication.

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, September 08, 2010

Clarion To Publish The Chronal Engine: Ahead of Time by Greg Leitich Smith


Breaking news!

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) will publish The Chronal Engine: Ahead of Time by Greg Leitich Smith (2012). Greg describes the book as a "mystery-adventure, time-travel novel."

From Publishers Marketplace, "Using their reclusive grandfather's time machine, a trio of contemporary teens travel to the Age of the Dinosaurs to solve a family mystery and rescue their sister..."

Cynsational Notes

Congratulations, Greg! I know better than anyone the extraordinary research and storytelling that has gone into this novel. I can hardly wait until it's time to share it with young readers!

Cynsational readers, please feel free to surf by and offer greetings and/or cheers at Greg's blog! (You can also subscribe to his blog at its LiveJournal syndication).

New Voice: Tameka Fryer Brown on Around Our Way on Neighbors' Day

Tameka Fryer Brown is the first-time author of Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Abrams, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Neighbors gather on a hot summer day for a joyful block party: Kids play double Dutch; men debate at the barber shop and play chess; mothers and aunts cook up oxtail stew, collard greens, and other delicious treats; and friends dance and sway as jazz floats through the streets.

A rhythmic tale that celebrates the diversity of a close-knit community, Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day will excite readers and prompt them to discover the magic of their own special surroundings.


Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2010, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised to be having my first book published in 2010, but I wouldn’t say it seemed inevitable either. What I will say is from the time I decided to pursue publication, I knew that I ultimately would. I hope that doesn’t sound cocky, because I don’t look at it that way. To me, accomplishment is all about goal setting and goal attainment.

“Good, better, best—never ever rest till your good is better, and your better is best. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”

Okay—I don’t know if these two quotes are supposed to be strung together, but it’s the way I learned them. I mention them because these are the sentiments behind every achievement I’ve ever had, including publication. However, there were a couple of times along this particular journey, that I came extremely close to the “not at all.”

In November of 2005, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—-after receiving a form rejection letter which thoughtfully advised me to do so.

Through SCBWI, I learned that craft trumped talent; that listening garnered more fruitful results than defending; and that seeking to publish sweet, heartwarming books for precious children was an endeavor not suited for the gumption-less, nor the rejection-fearful.

Every writer knows what a roller coaster ride this business is, and there were two points where I seriously considered getting off.

The first significant event came during the spring of 2007. I, the full-time mother of three children under the age of 10, had totally immersed myself in children’s book writing for over a year and a half, spending every extra minute on activities that were writing-related. And I felt stuck. Stuck at a point where many were saying how talented I was, but nobody was buying my work.

Since my faith sustains me and is at the heart of everything I do, I began to prayerfully consider turning my attention to another goal. After all, this one was taking a great deal of attention away from my family, and I wasn’t sure it was a wise use of my time anymore.

One of my last acts before ending my publication pursuit was to query a few agents. I knew it would be next to impossible to get one as a picture book writer, but I figured it was worth a try before calling it quits. I think I queried about three agents around May. '

On June 5, I got an “interested” reply from Jennifer Rofe at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. On July 18, I received an offer of representation. It wasn’t time to quit yet.

The second time, to make a long story shorter, we had subbed my manuscript for months, receiving lots of positive feedback—but no sale. Then we got a revision request. By the time I finished the revision, the publisher had already acquired something “too similar.” But the revision was even better than the original, so we sent that one out.

It wasn’t until October 2008 that we received an offer on it. Just prior to the offer, I had calmly, unemotionally, and finally decided that this writing endeavor was draining too much of my energy, that it wasn’t what God had planned for me, and that it was time for me to set a new goal.

As I look back, I don’t know that I kept the faith so much as the faith kept me.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

I learned through spit and grit, as they say.

After joining SCBWI, I became active locally, in the Carolinas region. I attended workshops and conferences, and was an active member on the national SCBWI discussion board, where I mostly hung out in the manuscript exchange section.

I learned a lot on that discussion board...mostly that my first stories weren’t as good as I thought they were. I also learned how not to be so defensive and argumentative when given criticism—even when it’s not sandwiched between positive comments.

Eventually, I broadened my horizons. I joined other organizations such as The Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC), and frequented other online venues like Verla Kay’s Blueboards. With both of these, I gained a deeper understanding of the business side of writing kidlit, as opposed to simply the craft. Each of these groups has been an invaluable resource for networking and learning more about the profession...and for accumulating wonderful advocates, mentors and friends.

Regarding strengths, I’d say I have a natural ability to depict vivid scenes and express resonant emotions via the written word. My ability to employ rhythm and rhyme is also a natural strength, informed by past courses in music.

Although I’m a reformed loner, my inherent powers of observation are still quite keen—a quality I believe to be important for any artist, including picture book writers.

Other strengths, I’d describe as more “experiential” than natural. I’ve worked a lot with children over the years—in Sunday school, youth groups, even as a Montessori teacher’s assistant—so I’m comfortable and relatively knowledgeable about communicating on their level. As a former salesperson, I’m also pretty good at getting to the heart of a matter quickly, with very few words—another essential skill for today’s picture book writer.

What I had to work hard at was learning the rules involved in writing picture books, like “abundant adverbs and adjectives = bad” and “interesting nouns, verbs and dialogue = good.” I also had to learn about crafting “story:” characterization, arc, pacing, theme, etc. I’m still honing those things, actually. And now that I’m beginning my foray into novel writing, I have to hone them in a whole new way.

I’ve also learned to accept and desire constructive feedback, since craving a critique full of glowing words to stroke the ego won’t ever allow one's writing to reach the next level.

Oh, and patience. Did I mention I’ve had to learn a lot about patience? I have. Except that one’s still a work in progress.


As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?


If you dwell on the toughness of the market, you’ll always feel like you’re swimming upstream. Instead, work tirelessly to write the best picture book that has ever been penned. That effort should leave you with something that’s publishable.

Cynsational Notes

A shelf shot of Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day at Concord Mills Books-A-Million (Concord, North Carolina).


Tameka reading at her book launch at Author Squad (Huntersville, North Carolina).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Guest Post: Kristina Springer on Writing the Second (and Third) Novel

By Kristina Springer

My second book, My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours (FSG, 2010), just came out Aug. 31, and I'm really excited about it!

Writing it was such a blast for me! I keep thinking back to this book and why I loved writing it so much, and I think it was because I flashed back a lot to my own time in seventh grade.

While the main character and her best friend are nothing at all like me (really, I swear), I did visualize the junior high that I attended as the setting for the book. So it was kind of like rewriting history.

I had a whole new cast of characters walking the halls I walked, gossiping at the water fountain I drank from, sitting in the science class I did, and dancing in the same school gym.

And, well, I did sort of also have my own fake boyfriend in seventh grade too. So writing about someone else having one (a cuter, more funny, smarter one of course) and getting in her own troubles was way fun.

The process of writing this book went a little bit differently than you might think, however. I didn't have a completed book that I submitted to publishers when this was sold.

When I sold my first book, The Espressologist (October 2009), my publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux also bought a second untitled book. Meaning, they wanted me to write another book to be released the following year, but we didn’t know what that was at the time. There weren't plans for a sequel to The Espressologist, so this was to be a whole new book.

The first thing I did was brainstorm a lot of ideas. Then I wrote pitches-- just about a paragraph or so of what each book would be about. I wrote them in the style you’d see on a book flap.

I sent five or six of these pitches over to my editor and asked if she liked any one better than another. I really wanted to get her opinion first before I dived too deep into any one project.

She was pleased with my pitches and really liked my ideas for My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours and Pumpkin Princess.

So my next step was to prepare proposals. For each book, I wrote out a one-page synopsis, a chapter-by-chapter outline, and I wrote the first three chapters.

And I was thrilled that my editor liked both books! She thought I should start first with My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours. I wrote the book in the spring of 2009, and FSG decided that would be my second release. Then I completed Pumpkin Princess in the fall of 2009, and FSG also bought that book for release in the fall of 2011.

I really enjoyed doing things this way because I always have so many ideas swimming around in my head, and it was really great to know which ones my editor liked the most before then turning all of my attention over to writing that book.

For more info on me or or my books, check out my newly re-designed super cute web site.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Celebrating VCFA Graduates Anne Bustard and Lindsey Lane

On Sept. 1, about 40 Austin writers and illustrators gathered at my house to celebrate Anne Bustard's and Lindsey Lane's recent completion of their MFA degrees in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne and Lindsey graduated in the July 2010 class. Both are published picture book authors.

Though my husband Greg and I have hosted many community events over the years, this one was more personal. We invited folks who've known them over the years and a few new friends, too.

Here, VCFA alum and Austin SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales (in black and white) helps Lindsey (in fuchsia) with her hood.

Anne was so mobbed by well-wishers that she was hard to catch on camera. But if you look behind Debbie and the right of illustrator and web designer Erik Kuntz, you can spot her back (white top, dark slacks). She's talking to VCFA student Sean Petrie.

Austin SCBWI founder and VCFA student Meredith Davis chats with author Chris Barton. You can catch a glimpse of Austin SCBWI ARA Carmen Oliver behind Chris and author Kathi Appelt from College Station behind Meredith. Kathi was Anne and Lindsey's original children's writing teacher, and she led the guests in a heartfelt toast to the graduates.

A closer look at Kathi with librarian and author Jeanette Larson.

Here's Jeanette again, with authors Jessica Lee Anderson (in black) and P.J. Hoover (in purple).

VCFA alum and author Bethany Hegedus, Meredith, author Jennifer Ziegler, and Lindsey.

Kathi and illustrator Mary Sullivan.

VCFA alum and author Varian Johnson. In the background, Chris and author Janice Shefelman.

VCFA alum and author Brian Yansky chats with Jenny.

Carmen and VCFA alum Gene Brenek.

Chris with former Austin SCBWI RA and author Julie Lake.

Authors Shana Burg and Lisa Railsback.

Bethany and Debbie with author Betty X. Davis and former Austin SCBWI RA Tim Crow.

Authors Frances Yansky, Margo Rabb, and April Lurie.

Cynsational Notes

This is by no means a peek at every guest at the party! I'm respectful of the camera shy and have a firm policy against posting photos of people chewing pizza. This is why I'm allowed to continue taking pictures.
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