Saturday, October 09, 2010

New Voice: Holly Cupala on Tell Me a Secret

Holly Cupala is the first-time author of Tell Me a Secret (HarperTeen, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Tell me a secret, and I'll tell you one...

In the five years since her bad-girl sister Xanda’s death, Miranda Mathison has wondered about the secret her sister took to the grave, and what really happened the night she died.

Now, just as Miranda is on the cusp of her dreams—a best friend to unlock her sister’s world, a ticket to art school, and a boyfriend to fly her away from it all—Miranda has a secret all her own.

Then two lines on a pregnancy test confirm her worst fears. Stripped of her former life, Miranda must make a choice with tremendous consequences and finally face her sister’s demons and her own.

In this powerful debut novel, stunning new talent Holly Cupala illuminates the dark struggle of a girl who must let go of her past to find a way into her future.


Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

[Pictured are Holly and her editor Catherine Onder of HarperCollins.]

That has to have been one of the wildest days of my life. Crazily, I’d signed with the agent who wanted revisions—what was I thinking? But he was right, and I knew it.

So I worked on revision for a few months (cue the terror brought on by someone actually waiting for the manuscript) and got to the place where we both felt it was ready to go out.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, I was getting ready to go to the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles (August 2008).

I was just about ready to leave for my flight when I got…

The Call.

And I remember feeling thrilled and sick and a wee bit annoyed that my agent hadn’t spilled one single bean throughout those three weeks of torture! He’d shown it to several editors I’d met at conferences and one pie-in-the-sky editor he was bringing to the table.

I didn’t even dare hope that she would love it—she had edited The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (HarperTempest, 2007, 2008), which won the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award and is one of my favorite books. So I’d pretty much put even the thought of her out of my head.


And then…she bought my story in a two-book pre-empt. It blew me away. So I didn’t really need a plane to get to L.A! I think I may have floated there all by myself and giddily told every single person there my news and put my sari for the red party on backwards and accepted a giant 50 rose bouquet from my wonderful husband. It was amazing!

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The idea for Tell Me a Secret came out of a very difficult period in my own life—I almost quit writing. But then I had a number of incredibly encouraging friends.

One such friend, Justina Chen Headley (author of North of Beautiful (Little Brown, 2009, 2010)) asked if I was thinking of writing about it.

We went to a session to hear Libba Bray speak shortly after, and then the story just fell out of the sky. I took notes for several months and started writing bits and pieces.

I had a clear sense of the story and characters right away, but the voice came later. At 3 a.m., to be specific. I was a new mom, totally sleep deprived, and I had just gotten the baby to sleep when Miranda spoke to me: It’s tough living in the shadow of a dead girl.

I knew if I didn’t get up right then, she might never speak again! So I dragged myself to the computer and wrote a few pages, which turned out to be the very first few pages in the finished book.

Once I had heard Miranda speak, it was like I’d found a window. Miranda is a character who defines herself through other people, so I knew getting to know her would involve the powerful experiences she has in relation to other characters. In some ways, she was the most difficult to write because her journey is very internal. I drew upon many of my own emotional memories to find her center, which she eventually finds as well.

Cynsational Notes

Holly Cupala wrote teen romance novels before she ever actually experienced teen romance. When she did, her writing became all about about tragic poetry and slightly less tragic novels.

When she isn't contributing to www.readergirlz.com and writing, she spends time with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington.

These days, her writing is less about tragedy and more about hope. Tell Me a Secret is her first novel. Part of the author's proceeds from this book will go toward helping sexually exploited girls around the globe.

Friday, October 08, 2010

New Voice: Tracy Trivas on The Wish Stealers

Tracy Trivas is the first-time children's author of The Wish Stealers (Simon & Schuster, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Griffin Penshine is always making wishes. But when a sinister old woman tricks her into accepting a box of eleven shiny Indian Head pennies from 1897, Griffin soon learns these are no ordinary pennies, but stolen wishes.

This box of labeled pennies comes with a horrible curse: People in possession of the stolen coins are Wish Stealers, who will never have their wishes granted.... In fact, the opposite of what they've wished for will happen.

Griffin must find a way to return these stolen wishes and undo the curse if her own wishes are to come true.
But how can Griffin return wishes to strangers who might not even be alive?

Her journey leads her to ancient alchemists, Macbeth's witches, and a chance to help people in ways she never imagined, but the temptation of the Wish Stealers' dark and compelling power is growing stronger.

Can Griffin reverse the curse in time to save herself and the people she loves?


Tracy Trivas's rich and imaginative d├ębut novel introduces a talent as bright and sparkling as Griffin's pennies.


What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year?

Years before I had The Wish Stealers published, I directed a gifted and talented program and taught English. My classroom door had some of my favorite quotes taped to it on colored paper—alerting students they were entering a world of words…a place where, when we read Edgar Allan Poe for example, I put all their desks together, draped our new center “banquet table” in purple velvet, set plastic “wine goblets” filled with dark red cranberry juice on top, shut off the lights, and lit an eyeball-shaped candle. Then we’d go around the table and read aloud, lingering on beautiful sentences and strange concoctions of words. The kids loved it, and even the most reluctant students started to open up to the power of words and the beauty of language.

In my classroom, I had a wall dedicated to Noah Webster, and I displayed a giant honored dictionary underneath it.

Every Wednesday, we had “Wacky Word Wednesday” and the children had to bring in quirky words and set them to pictures.

This love of words and beautiful sentences began early for me. As a child, I was a voracious reader, and without knowing why, I’d hand copy favorite sentences from books into a diary, as if trying to capture them, or maybe subconsciously absorb their structure.

On Tuesday nights, when I was very young, my dad would drive me in our big old faux-wood-paneled station wagon to the town library where we’d max out our library cards. After an hour of book hunting, my dad would retrieve the car and double-park at the curb as I tottered out the library doors with a giant tower of books, giddy with my new finds.

My dad introduced me to the library early. I remember the pride I felt getting my first library card, signing it with my wobbly six-year-old signature….

I was so proud, like I had just signed The Declaration of Independence. And in a way, reading is just that—a personal declaration of independence. What better way than through a book to find a secret life, an inner world, and explore new thoughts, desires, curiosities, and love.

My favorite book as a young girl was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (L.C. Page and Company, 1908). I devoured the series…. I’d curl up in our living room chair and read an entire book straight through, obsessed with Anne and her independence, her strength, her mischief, and her sense of adventure.

When I set out to write The Wish Stealers, Griffin Penshine popped in my head as my protagonist. It was clear to me that I wanted Griffin to be as strong, independent, smart, and brave as Anne was for me as a child.

I truly believe that Anne in Anne of Green Gables deeply influenced my ideas of what a girl could do, what relationships looked like, and what a true friend was…. I read many, many books as a kid, but that one particular book etched something in my soul about courage and love.

In Griffin, I hoped to create a girl who loved to dream and wish. I start The Wish Stealers by describing Griffin’s character:

Griffin Penshine had three freckles under her left eye that sometimes looked like stars. This was a good thing, as Griffin was always wishing. She wished when a ladybug landed on a windowsill, she wished on dandelion dust, and she even wished on tumbling eyelashes. In fact, she often rescued the eyelash of a friend and reminded her to wish.

But then again Griffin always noticed the smallest of details. She could track her way out of a forest, spotted everything from worms to woodbeetles, and giggled at absurd words on menus like jumbo shrimp. Griffin also liked certain things a certain way. She loved peanut butter on brownies, hated wearing turtlenecks, and insisted her mom buy cool mint toothpaste.

One of my favorite reviews on The Wish Stealers came from the owner of the San Antonio Book Review. She wrote, “If you’ve just about given up on finding books for your 'tweenage' daughter that feature strong and capable female protagonists, check out The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas....Side effects may include approving of your child’s choice of reading material, a marked increase in the number of wishes made on loose change, and fielding questions from your daughter about Shakespeare, philanthropy, and vegetarism.”

As a young reader I also loved fantasy, mystery, the supernatural--especially that strange and blurry line between magic and coincidence.

In June, I did a book signing at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. Right before I arrived, a few towns away, a freak tornado spiraled through Connecticut, wrecking a few buildings and then swirling off as if it never existed. Tornadoes in Kansas sure, but in Connecticut? Coming out of nowhere, hitting two buildings and leaving? Strange but true.

This is exactly what happens in The Wish Stealers…some readers think oh, that’s the fantasy, the absurd part…a tornado happens to blast into town right after Griffin is tricked with a cursed box of wishes, but things like this do happen.

Actually, Carrie Seiden of RK Julia Booksellers said to me, when she heard about the tornado a few towns over, that she couldn’t believe it occurred the day I was coming in for The Wish Stealers signing. She asked if I had planned it to accompany my visit! I told her writers can conjure up many things, but tornadoes were out of my repertoire…

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

The best part of being a teacher before being a published author is having had constant contact with the target audience. I taught for seven years before writing full time…. I saw up close what kids liked, loved, and hated!

Children are a fierce audience and do not have the tolerance of older readers to give a book a chance by wading through a murky or boring section. Their time is so valuable and competed for so brutally with TV, video games, etc., that a book better be a page-turner.

Of course it must have the emotional depth and resonance of any great book, but don’t skimp on plot and weave yards and yards of description. Working with children hammered into me the importance of a really strong plot, and at least one character that the kids love--I mean love, relate to, want to root for, be best friends with, and meet in real life.

For middle grades, especially at that 8-12 age, having a best friend in the world is everything. I also witnessed upfront that what an adult thinks is great in a book, a child may experience very differently. It is so easy for us as adults to forget that we need to go back to an eight–year-old mindset where everything is new, relationships and friendships are the whole world, and kids are looking for the “psychic rules of life”--like how do girls weather fair-weather friends when their hormones can change everything over a summer? How does one stick up to a bully and not become one herself?

I created Grandma Penshine as a strong artist, but also as a guide for Griffin as she navigates the social/emotional world of school and crosses the rapids of adolescence.

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?

The most surprising thing about having a book published and then working on the promotion process is how different promoting a book is from writing it--how it requires a totally different part of one’s brain.

When I write, I love to hunker down into a quiet space. I don’t answer the phone, I force myself to look at email only at the end of the day. I shut the door to my office, open the windows, and maybe even light a candle. My two cats come into my office, and one sits on my desk like a calico sphinx. Time passes so quickly as I slide into the world of imagination.

Cut to: a day of promotion means writing about ten million emails to publicists, my manager, amazing friends who help bring The Wish Stealers to their children’s schools; writing back to teachers regarding school visits; answering children’s emails with question like: “Who is your favorite character, and do the names of characters in the book have secret meaning?” (yes!).

The phone is ringing, I am checking Facebook, email, yahoo, and my blog. I am adding photos to my blog and jotting a quick paragraph about a recent school visit or library event or what it was like to speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on a panel.

I am very grateful to be able to share the book and see it reach all fifty states and get email from people overseas. I recently heard from a young girl in Australia whose family got hold of the book, and she emailed me a few times about how much she enjoyed it. It is thrilling to think that something one created in solitude in a tiny office with purring cats has traveled into people’s homes, into the imagination of children around the world, and into libraries.

Having those human connections with readers is incredible, especially on those writing days when things are not flowing and one just feels alone and stuck on a difficult chapter.

I am grateful and thrilled to have the “promoting” days, but it a very logical, active, driven part of the brain. Soon I find that I must get back to story—to that dreamy space I love so much…

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Wish Stealers" in the subject line (LiveJournal, Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: Oct. 31. Sponsored by Simon & Schuster; U.S. entries only.

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Trivas, a graduate of Dartmouth College, won a Dartmouth Graduate Fellowship to study Victorian Literature at Oxford University, England. She received her Masters Degree in English from Middlebury College.

She directed a Gifted and Talented program in a Los Angeles private school and has published gifted and talented workbooks as well as an adult non-fiction book, co-authored by Sarah Culberson, A Princess Found: An American Family, An African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All (St. Martin's, 2009).

Tracy lives in California with her family.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Children's Literature from India and the Indian Diaspora from PaperTigers. Features include:

an interview with author Kashmira Sheth by Aline Pereira ("Your most recent book, Boys Without Names (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2010), is the moving story of Gopal, a teenager who, in an attempt to help his family financially, finds himself trapped in a sweatshop job.");

an interview with Tulika Books' Radhika Menon, founder and publisher, and Sandhya Rao, editor and author, by Aline Pereira ("Tulika Publishers is an independent publishing house from Chennai, India which, since 1996, has been publishing multilingual children's books and stories in translation in a variety of genres. The first publisher of bilingual books in India, Tulika is committed to addressing the needs of children growing up in a pluralistic society.");

an interview with Manisha Chaudhry, Head of Content Development of Pratham Books by Aline Pereira ("Established in 2004, Pratham Books is a non-profit trust that publishes high quality children's books at affordable prices and in multiple Indian languages. Pratham Books is one of the arms of Pratham.org, the largest non-profit organization in the area of primary education in India. Their programs have reached over a million children to date, in 13 states.");

in the illustrators gallery with Uma Krishnaswamy and Bhajju Shyam;

Returning to Essential Questions by Uma Krishnaswami ("Sometimes it takes a while to travel to a place where the winds are right, and you’re looking in the direction you need to face, and your mind isn’t distracted. Only then can you read your own words and see, hear what lies underneath them. Sometimes you have to return to find the swale.");

Trailblazers of Yesterday: Bengali Children's Classics Shouldn't Be Forgotten by Swapna Dutta ("I can’t fathom why publishers don’t translate these and some of the other popular adventure-mystery stories of yesteryear – Hemendra Kumar’s “Bimal-Kumar and Jayanto-Manik” stories, or the Manoranjan’s “Huka-Kashi” stories, for instance. After all, stories of mystery and adventure are perennial favourites among children.").

More News & Giveaways

Twitter Book Parties! a celebration of new books for kids, tweens, and teens. Peek: "The day your book releases (full list here), we'll spread the news, raise a glass, break out the chocolate, and virtually party with you. I’ll also provide a link to an independent bookseller of your choice (send me the link featuring your book) or to IndieBound so that thousands of tweeps can buy your book."

Nominate the Best Books of the Year for the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (the Cybils). Books published between Oct. 16, 2009, and Oct. 15, 2010, are eligible. Note: my upcoming picture book, Holler Loudly (Dutton, 2010), is not eligible; it's official publication date is Nov. 11.

Congratulations to Georgia McBride, founder of YALITCHAT, on signing with Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency, and congratulations to Mark on signing Georgia! Read a Cynsations interview with Mark.

Interview with Middle Grade Novelist Royce Buckingham by Clete Barrett Smith from Through the Tollbooth. Note: "Royce Buckingham is a Pacific Northwest author who specializes in boy-friendly fiction. His latest book, the supernatural mystery/thriller The Dead Boys, was released by Putnam on September 2 and is a Junior Library Guild Selection." Peek: "It’s a knife-edge, so to speak, because you’re trying to scare them but you’re not trying to traumatize them." See also Clete on Things I've Learned about Writing Novels from Reading Comics.

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part I: Track the Problem by Carolyn Kaufman from Query Tracker. Peek: "The Inner Critic can be the writer’s worst enemy. Each time we sit down to work, it feeds on our insecurities, reminds us of past failures, and criticizes everything we put down on paper." See also Part II: Put the Critic on the Stand.

Antagonists in Contemporary Fiction by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "...what do you do if you don’t have a villain in mind? If there’s no shadowy baddie behind the curtain, always threatening danger and doom? Do you still have a story?" See also Mary on How to Pick an Agent if You Write for Many Audiences. Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Susan Hawk of the Bent Agency from Shelli at Market My Words. Peek: "We all know that promotion continues to become a more central part of any book’s success, and as that has changed over time, agents’ focus on the marketing plans that publishing houses create has grown as well."

Selling Color in a White World: Notes From New England Independent Booksellers Association by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek quoting Elizabeth Bluemle: "Our industry is still dominated by white people, and honestly, we get lazy handselling books featuring people of color."

Interview with Children's Book Press Executive Editor Dana Goldberg and Sales and Marketing Manager Janet del Mundo by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "CBP was the first nonprofit press in the country established to focus solely on multicultural and bilingual literature."

Dystopian Worldbuilding Worksheet Part One and Part Two from Kate Messner. Peek: "Even imaginary worlds need rules. Consider Hogwarts. The incantation 'Expelliarmus!' always results in an opponent being disarmed, if it's done right. As readers, we wouldn't be on board if a character used 'Expelliarmus!' to disarm an enemy in one scene and then cried 'DroppusWandus!' five pages later. Things need to be consistent."

Congratulations to Helen Hemphill, Annemarie O’Brien, and the other eight finalists for the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts!

A Look at School Visits: Dealing with Problems by Verla Kay from Verla Kay's Blog. Peek: "You are human. You might make some mistakes during the day. That's not a tragedy unless you turn it into one. You are in control of your attitude for the day and if you keep a positive attitude about you, everyone will "roll" with whatever happens and the day will be a success."

When Back List Books Go POD from April Henry. Peek: "One downside to this idea is that a book might never be considered out-of-print, so the rights would never revert back to the author. Speaking as someone who made a few dollars putting her out-of-print backlist on the Kindle..."

What Do Amazon Rankings Mean to Authors? by Richard Mabry from Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent at Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "The first consideration is that Amazon isn’t the only place people buy books."

Agent Advice: Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary from Chuck at Guide to Literary Agents. Excellent in-depth interview in which Jen talks about her preferences. Note: She represents "children's fiction ranging from picture books to young adult" and is open to diverse voices and characters, especially where race is not the primary issue.

Cynsational Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win a copy of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Wish Stealers" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: Oct. 31. Sponsored by Simon & Schuster; U.S. entries only.

Cynsational Screening Room

Linda Sue Park talks about A Long Walk To Water (Clarion, 2010) and introduces readers to the subject of the novel, Salva Dut, from Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.



How The Million Man March Inspired a Picture Book by Kelly Starling Lyons from Nathalie Mvondo at Multiculturalism Rocks! Peek: "Years later when I began writing for children, the memory of that little girl and her dad came back to me. What if I imagined what the March was like for her? What if the little girl was the storyteller sharing the story of her dad and all of the men who made history that day?"



More Personally

Quirky & Quintessential Writer Series: Featuring Cynthia Leitich Smith by Mahtab Narsimhan from Moonlight Musings. Peek: "...what about the stuff totally unrelated to books? The quirky stuff that makes them the quintessential writer? I've wondered the same thing about a lot of writers I've greatly admired and so, was born the idea of asking them questions mostly unrelated to the world of writing. Fun stuff that makes them come alive for me!"

Cynthia's Story at ReaderKidZ has been expanded to include a Q&A interview.

Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith: review from Jeanette Larson at Parent Wise Austin (PDF). Peek: "This original tall tale will delight kids from preschool through third grade, who will especially enjoy joining in on some hollering! Cartoonish illustrations add to the fun and this is a definite 'must' for reading aloud—loudly!"

Book Review - Jingle Dancer from Mundie Kids: Mundie Moms Children's Book Reviews. Peek: "Jingle Dancer is a beautifully written story that belongs in both school and home libraries. I highly recommend this story. (Five stars.)" Note: I'm pleased to announce that both the trade and library editions of Jingle Dancer are going into reprint! Thanks to all for your continued support of my first book!

Thank you to the Lonely Comma for recommending Cynsations and my official website. Peek: "Under the link to Children's and YA Literature Resources is a section for Diverse Reads. Within it are sub-categories such as multicultural, multiracial, Native Americans, and an Asian-Heritage page." Note: the Lonely Comma is "dedicated to highlighting the work of Asian American authors and writers."

Cynsational guest posts and interviews are currently pre-formatted and scheduled through the third week in January. However, if you would like to suggest a news blurb for a future Friday round-up, please take a look at the examples above to learn the typical format styles and frame your request according. Include relevant links at the end (I'll code them for you), and attach any related images. Thanks!

Two Chances to Win Blessed ARC

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith Review and ARC Giveaway by Insert Book Title Here. Peek: "The world of Tantalize and Eternal combine in Blessed (PDF) to create an amazing story that is captivating. I loved both of the previous novels, but Blessed has blown them both out of the water. This is Cynthia at her best." Note: U.S. and Canadian citizens are eligible to win. Deadline: midnight Oct. 31. Enter here.

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith ARC Giveaway by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Deadline: midnight Oct. 15. Note: P.J. is also giving away an ARC of her upcoming novel, The Necropolis (CBAY, 2010), an ARC of Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt (Roaring Brook, 2010), and an ARC of Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky (Candlewick, 2010). Newly added: Truth with a Capital T by Bethany Hegedus (Delacorte, 2010). Click titles for details!

Cynsational Events

Check out the schedule for Texas Book Festival on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 in Austin. Cynthia Leitich Smith will be reading Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Children's Read Me a Story Tent. Her signing will follow immediately afterward at the Children's Signing Tent (13th and Colorado). Note: In a limited early release, Holler Loudly will premier at this event.

"Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction, with Cynthia Leitich Smith" at The 33rd Annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar - Kalamazoo Public Library. The seminar costs $40 (lower student rates are available) and is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Nov. 5. Note: Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon will also present a book talk, and additional speakers are Gillian Engberg, Booklist editor, and Debbie Reese, UIUC professor. See more on the speakers. Note: I'll also be speaking on Nov. 4 in a public event at the Kalamazoo Public Library!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Guest Post: Tammi Sauer on Word Choice in Picture Books

By Tammi Sauer

When writing picture books, I strive to tell as much as possible in as little as possible.

This helps me to leave plenty of room for the illustrator to do half the storytelling through the art.

One of my key jobs is to use great words. Each word must count. Each word should be the best possible choice.

I usually start with the name of my main character.

With my latest book Mostly Monsterly, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2010), for example, my main character is a monster. I didn’t want to give her just any name. Kate wasn’t right. Neither was Hailey.

But Bernadette? Now, that was a name for a monster.

Once I had my main character’s name, I did some brainstorming. I jotted down words that had a monsterly feel and would help set the tone for my story.

• fangs
• fur
• tail
• monster
• gross
• claws
• toothy
• huff
• ew
• spit
• mumble
• grumble
• yuck
• eyeballs
• toenails
• drool
• growl
• lurch
• creepy
• snot
• teeth
• horns
• stomp
• slobber
• mayhem
• scary
• hairy


Later, as I worked on the text, I drew from this list. Many of these words can be found on the first two-page spread of Mostly Monsterly.


(art credit: Scott Magoon)

Not all of the words from my list, however, made it into the story. If a word didn’t add to the character development or storyline in some way, that word was not included.

Also, since my picture books are humorous, I like to choose words that sound funny. This helps to create a more satisfying read aloud experience. In Mostly Monsterly, for instance, the words “fangs” and “slobber” made their way into the text. “Teeth” and “spit” did not.

Another thing I try to do is use specific words that show the reader something about the characters. My monsters never “walked.” They “lurched.” And when Bernadette was sad, I didn’t simply tell the reader, “Bernadette was sad.” I showed that sadness in this line: “Bernadette’s tail drooped.”

These are just a few of the things I do when it comes to selecting the right words. I want my picture books to sing! Or, in the case of Mostly Monsterly, grumble and growl.

Cynsational Notes

Scroll to read: Psst! Recipe for Bernadette’s Top Secret Cupcakes.

Tammi is also the author of Cowboy Camp, illustrated by Mike Reed (Sterling, 2005), Chicken Dance, illustrated by Dan Santat (Sterling, 2009), Mr. Duck Means Business, illustrated by Jeff Mack (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2011), Bawk and Roll, illustrated by Dan Santat (Sterling, 2011), Me Want Pet! illustrated by Bob Shea (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2012), Princess-in-Training (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming), and Oh, Nuts! (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

Illustrations by Scott Magoon. Author photo by Tori North.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

New Voice: Mindi Scott on Freefall

Mindi Scott is the first-time author of Freefall (Simon Pulse, 2010). From the promotional copy:

How do you come back from the point of no return?

Seth McCoy was the last person to see his best friend Isaac alive, and the first to find him dead. It was just another night, just another party, just another time where Isaac drank too much and passed out on the lawn.

Only this time, Isaac didn’t wake up.


Convinced that his own actions led to his friend’s death, Seth is torn between turning his life around . . . or losing himself completely.


Then he meets Rosetta: so beautiful and so different from everything and everyone he’s ever known. But Rosetta has secrets of her own, and Seth will soon realize he isn’t the only one who needs saving....


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?

Pre-contract revisions were all about what I wanted to change or not change. I used the critiques I received in whatever way I saw fit and moved forward from there.

When I revised for my agent, I was a little panicked at first. This was the first time I was actually going to have to turn my changes in and get them approved! (As it turns out, he was very happy with the revisions, so there was no need for me to worry so much.)

Post-contract revisions were very different than revising for myself or my agent. My editor had a sense of some elements that weren't working in the story, but in some cases, she wasn't sure how best to change it. We brainstormed together, but she left it up to me to make some of the important decisions. She felt like it would be much more organic for me to feel out what needed to be done rather than for her to dictate the specific changes. It was a stressful time for me, but she said, "Trust your feelings, Luke," and I did (even though I'm not Luke). It all did work out in the end, which was a relief for sure.

My advice about the revision process is to dig deep, work hard, and know that even if you don't feel like you're going to survive this stage, you will! I won't go so far as to say that you'll laugh about it later, but you'll be able to look back and see that you accomplished something truly great.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?


My character’s family doesn’t have a lot of money, so I felt like it was okay that he didn’t have the latest stuff or even mention what was out there. We never see him use a computer (although a couple of other characters do off-screen). He doesn’t have a mobile phone either, so he has to borrow from another character.

The phone situation started bothering me a little because things changed a lot between when I started writing the book and publication. Four years ago, a teen of his economic class might not have had a phone. But these days, it seems more and more likely that he would. And in another four years, who knows?

In the end, I decided he wouldn’t have a phone and my editor didn’t think it was a problem.

Cynsational Notes

Mindi Scott lives near Seattle, Washington with her drummer husband in a house with a non-sound-proof basement. Photo of Mindi by B. Bollay.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Guest Post: Doris Fisher on Picture Books Versus Children's Magazine Articles

By Doris Fisher

What’s the difference between a picture book and a children’s magazine article?

At first glance the two texts look similar. They are geared to a particular age group and deal with subjects children love.

However, there are plenty of differences for a writer to keep in mind.

A picture book is 1,000 words or fewer. A writer can come up with a wacky idea and run with it.

A magazine article is usually 300 to 500 words. Each magazine has specific guidelines for a writer to follow before submitting work. Otherwise, the article will not be given publishing consideration. Guidelines are offered to explain exactly what a magazine want to publish.

Guidelines mean serious business!

A picture book’s text contains 13 to 15 scenes for illustrations inside its standard 32 pages.

A magazine article for children covers a smaller amount of information and doesn’t use images to convey messages. Photos or art may be used to entice the reader to look at the article or enhance the information presented in the text.

A fiction picture book with a storyline involves a main character who embarks on a hero’s journey with pitfalls along the way and success or a revelation at the end of the book.

A fiction magazine article, with its shorter length, usually concentrates on one detail of a character’s life or idea, instead of a continuing storyline which evolves and grows.

Save that wonderful research and wealth of words for a picture book!

A nonfiction picture book still contains 32 pages, and the hero’s journey is usually absent. This writing focuses on a subject, person, location, or idea, providing the reader with information. It still needs the 13 to 15 scenes for an illustrator.

Creative nonfiction presents the information in a more child-friendly manner, instead of with straight facts, dates and places.

A nonfiction magazine article informs. It provides data and facts that may rarely be known or an amazing detail for children to relish and tell others.

A picture book is text and art.

A magazine article can also be a magazine item. Poetry, puzzles, games, jokes, crafts, plays, “how-to” articles, and cartoons are also included in magazine writing. Search writer guidelines to find where other creative formats than just articles are welcome submissions.

I love to write a-MAZE-ing puzzles and word games! My unique work has appeared more than 75 times in children’s magazines.

Picture book subjects and themes are author created.

Magazine article subjects and themes are often dictated by the intended format of the magazine publishers. Nonfiction subjects, fiction, poetry, other formats, monthly themes, holidays and the intended audience age are all found in various children’s magazines. Guidelines inform writers of each magazine’s needs.

Picture book publishers are usually not children’s magazine publishers.

A list of picture book publishers and magazine publishers can be found in the annual publication, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writers Digest, 2009).

The Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators also has lists of these markets on its website.

Now it’s time for you to gather ideas, create and write on!

Cynsational Notes

From Sylvan Dell: Doris Fisher (Happy Birthday to Whooo?, illustrated by Lisa Downey (2006); My Half Day (2008), One Odd Day (2007), and My Even Day (2007), co-authored by Dani Sneed, illustrated by Karen Lee) loves writing in verse. She has written a biography, Kelly Clarkson (Gareth Stevens, 2007), and a six book series, Grammar All-Stars: The Parts of Speech (Gareth Stevens).

Her children’s writing includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, word puzzles and mazes. She has been published in various children’s magazines including Babybug, Highlights for Children, and Wee Ones Magazine.

Doris and her husband live in the Houston area. They have two grown children.



Enter Doris's monthly picture-book giveaway drawing. Scroll for details. Note: U.S. residents only.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Nancy Garden

Learn about Nancy Garden.

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

I'm not sure anything in particular did. I think the ideas came first, and they dictated the form and the age level.

I don't think I ever sat down and said, "Now I'm going to write a mystery," for example, or "Now I'm going to write a nonfiction book--what shall it be about?"

Once an editor asked me write a middle-grade book about a kid with two moms, and I did (that editor didn't publish it, though another one did!). But I'd been thinking about doing that anyway.

As far as my books about LGBTQ characters and issues are concerned, however, I did decide to write a picture book because I felt there was a need, and I've felt that about other areas as well--so perhaps I should say that sometimes a perceived need sometimes leads to a form.

I should also say that the desire to write an occasional adult novel is usually with me, but only once has that materialized in an actual published novel (Nora and Liz (Bella Books, 2002)). Ideas for adult books rarely occur to me, and when they do, they rarely stick with me for enough time to make them feel viable. So the story idea (or subject, since I've written a little nonfiction, too) is more important, and I think that's really always true.


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


That's an intriguing question!

When I wrote my (so far!) only picture book, for example, Molly's Family, illustrated by Sharon Wooding (FSG, 2004), I had to concentrate so much on learning how to do it that I didn't think much at first about what I was learning that would be useful elsewhere.

But I know it helped me become even more conscious of the need for economy in all other forms, for I tend to be, er, longwinded. Short stories help me practice that skill, too. Writing fiction I think helps anyone who writes nonfiction, especially nonfiction for kids. At least it helps one try to make nonfiction vivid.

Here's another thing: I haven't written much in play form, but I did a little when I was just starting out and I did work on revising a script someone else wrote. And I have an extensive theater background, mostly in acting, directing, and lighting design.

My directing experience in particular has I know helped me with scenes in novels or stories that involve several characters at the same time, and my acting experience has helped me develop characters, for, as an actress, I used to write an "autobiography" of each character I played, and I usually do that with main and important other characters in novels as well.

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

I don't like it much; it's like typecasting in theater. I'm known primarily for writing LGBTQ YAs, and in a way, that's been very helpful to me, and of course in many ways I'm proud of being know for it. But I fear my other books have suffered, because reviewers, especially, and perhaps some publishers as well expect me to write only LGBTQ books.

Don't get me wrong; those books are very important to me! But so are the others that I write!

Cynsational Notes

From Two Lives, "Nancy Garden is the author of around 35 books for children and young adults, a number of which have to do with gay and lesbian kids and families. She and her partner divide their time between Massachusetts and Maine."

In 2007, FSG published the 25th anniversary edition of Nancy's groundbreaking YA novel, Annie on My Mind (1982).

From FSG: "Of the author and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, 'Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.'

"The 25th Anniversary Edition features a full-length interview with the author by Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Ms. Garden answers such revealing questions as how she knew she was gay, why she wrote the book, censorship, and the book’s impact on readers – then and now."

Nancy's recent releases include The Case of the Vanishing Valuables (Candlestone Inn Mystery #2), illustrated by Danamarie Hosler (Two Lives, 2010)(ages 7-up). From the promotional copy:

A new group of guests has checked into Candlestone Inn, and the Taylor-Michaelson family - Nikki, Travis and their moms - have their hands full with their innkeeper duties.

When valuable objects start disappearing, Nikki and Travis start investigating – is it one of the new guests, the new maid, or could it be – a ghost?


See also The Case of the Stolen Scarab (Candlestone Inn Mystery #1)(Two Lives).

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.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

New Voice: Matthew J. Kirby on The Clockwork Three

Matthew J. Kirby is the first-time author of The Clockwork Three (Scholastic, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Three ordinary children are brought together by extraordinary events. . .

Giuseppe is an orphaned street musician from Italy, who was sold by his uncle to work as a slave for an evil padrone in the U.S. But when a mysterious green violin enters his life he begins to imagine a life of freedom.

Hannah is a soft-hearted, strong-willed girl from the tenements, who supports her family as a hotel maid when tragedy strikes and her father can no longer work. She learns about a hidden treasure, which she knows will save her family -- if she can find it.

And Frederick, the talented and intense clockmaker's apprentice, seeks to learn the truth about his mother while trying to forget the nightmares of the orphanage where she left him. He is determined to build an automaton and enter the clockmakers' guild -- if only he can create a working head.

Together, the three discover they have phenomenal power when they team up as friends, and that they can overcome even the darkest of fears.


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?

Of the two, I guess I would be considered a plunger, but a slightly apprehensive one. It’s like traveling to a place I’ve never been, where I don’t know the language or the culture. I really like to travel, and I’m always excited to go someplace new and different, but I’m also a bit nervous.

Maybe I wouldn’t be as nervous if I had a better idea of my destination, but I don’t outline in the formal sense. At most, I might jot down some ideas, some images, or snippets of dialogue that I plan to use. I do usually have some mile markers in mind, which some might think of as a kind of outline, and I guess it is. But it isn’t a map.

To continue the traveling metaphor, if a writer who does follow a strict outline has a GPS, and a map, and a satellite phone, what I have are vague directions I picked up from a stranger I met on the side of the road. And that’s the way I like it.

Of course, now that I’ve said all that, I have to admit I did outline some of The Clockwork Three though much less than people think. The book has three protagonists, each with their own separate but interlocking stories. The majority of the book I wrote without an outline, but when I hit the last three chapters I had to lay it all out and organize it. I created a spreadsheet with columns for the different plotlines so I could see where they overlapped and lined up, departing from my usual on-the-fly way of doing things to make sure I wrapped up all the loose ends how I wanted to (which also meant leaving some threads intentionally hanging in the wind). But I haven’t felt the need to do that for any of my other stories.

When I write, all I really need is a direction to write in. I prefer to just relax and explore, even though it might mean some wrong turns, dead ends, and heavier edits later.

But some of my favorite bits and moments of writing have come from those times where I just let my characters guide me. That’s the key, really. Having characters that can show me around. I find that if my characters live and breathe and are real to me, when I put them in a situation authentic to them and set them going, they’ll lead me out of it.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?


I’m represented by Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Steve and I met at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop in Sandy, Utah, a few years ago. He was on the workshop faculty, and I listened to him speak a few times at different breakout sessions. He impressed me with his demeanor and his philosophy on children’s literature.

After the conference, I sent him my manuscript, and I think his exact response was, “It’s good. But it’s not great.” I took that as a rejection, but Steve encouraged me to set the manuscript aside, work on something new, and send him what I wrote next.

That something new ended up being The Clockwork Three. Steve read it and offered representation, about a year-and-a-half from the time we first met. Following a round of revisions, he sent the book out on submission, and Scholastic made an offer less than a week after receiving it.

The thing you need to remember, and the great thing about Steve, is that during that intervening year-and-a-half in which he wasn’t my agent, he nevertheless encouraged and nurtured me as a writer. His generosity with his time and expertise was one of the things that helped me decide to sign with him.

I considered other factors when making that decision, things I think every writer should ask when looking for an agent. Do they communicate with you in the way you need? Do you get along with each other? (Because the agent-writer relationship is ideally long-term.) Are they an “editorial agent,” and is that something you’re looking for? Do you agree on where you see your career going?

Steve wasn’t the only agent I considered. But he and I lined up on the answers to each of these questions, and most importantly, he is passionate about my work. I’ve always thought that your agent should be as big a fan of your book as your mom.

Cynsational Notes


Matthew's photo by Azure Midzinski (2008).
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