Saturday, October 16, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Tanya Lee Stone

Learn about Tanya Lee Stone.

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

Since I didn't set out to write across forms in a deliberate way, I'm not sure there was any one moment of inspiration linked to that outcome. However, I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.

My career began as an editor of children's nonfiction, primarily for the school library market--and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.

And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell--what was I passionate about--what was I yearning to say?

Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form.

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

I tell my college students that all of your present writing will inform your future writing, and that has been true for me.

Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my non-fiction. If I'm investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so. It is the "why is this story important to you?" question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.

And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing.

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

Well, I'm resistant to pressure of any kind, so....

But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment.

It's not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept.

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.

In the video below, Tanya talks about engaging reluctant readers from Vermont Public Television:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Post: Brian Yansky on Being Unreasonable

By Brian Yansky

I’ve written elsewhere that my first short-story, “Santa Claus and the Twenty-seven Bad Boys,” which was written in the first grade, neatly outlined my material for a lifetime of fiction writing: it had a stubborn fascination in the mythological and supernatural creatures that haunt and enliven our culture, an affection for odd and strange characters, and a desire to be both comic and serious.

While this is surely true, I don’t think I found the complete expression of it until I wrote Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences (Candlewick, 2010)(chapter one PDF).

What I mean is this: though writing quirky novels was nothing new to me, the fantastical elements in those novels was never central to them. The novels were rooted in realism and the fantastical events were appendages added to them in various ways for various purposes. I’d published two of these novels. Both of them had received mostly good reviews and one had won a prestigious award, but neither had sold particularly well.

After those, I’d written my next novel, and that novel had been rejected by my editor and several other editors. After those rejections I have to admit, rightly or wrongly, to a feeling that I was doing something wrong. And I have to admit I had no reason to believe there would be a line of publishers interested in my next manuscript if it were like the others. So what I thought at that point was I needed to try writing a more conventional novel. I needed to reel in my quirky characters and mute the fantasy element. I needed to try something different.

With this in mind, I started a novel. It died after twenty or thirty pages. I started another and same thing happened. This went on for a while. I did what writers in a bad place must do, I kept writing. Eventually I started one that began, “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” Okay, I thought. Kind of funny. Kind of weird.

But not more conventional.

Not following the plan.

I was about to erase the line when another came. “That’s pretty disappointing.”

I had a voice. I couldn’t deny I had a voice. Every writer loves when they feel they have a voice, a narrator who speaks distinctly. But this was still not the novel I had planned. This was definitely not that novel. My finger hovered over the DELETE key.

But, come on, I had a voice.

I remember thinking to myself, “Really? You’re really going to write this novel? This totally unsellable even-weirder-than-usual novel? Really?”

Be reasonable, I thought. A novel takes a year. Maybe more. No on gets that many of those.

But I had a voice. I had a character. What could I do?

(Let me interject here that there are many wonderful conventional novels, but that, for me, writing a conventional novel is like trying to write in a strait jacket. I couldn’t do it if I tried. I did try. I couldn’t.)

This novel that I wrote thinking no one would buy is the novel that sold to one of the best publishers around, Candlewick. If I’d listened to the voice of reason, I wouldn’t have written it.

Sometimes we writers have to be unreasonable. Sometimes, even though there are many good reasons not to, we have to write what we have to write. And, for me, the writing of Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences taught me a lot about what I want to write and how to write it. So that leap in the dark, that to “hell with it,” that unreasonable act, made, as Mr. Frost once said about a certain less-traveled road, all the difference.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Hibernation Station by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Personalization of the signing is optional to the winner! From the promotional copy:

Everybody to the Station!

Time for Winter Hibernation!

With room for all kinds of critters from big burly bears and clamoring chipmunks to grumpy groundhogs and fidgety frogs, this train is filled to capacity and ready to go!

The final destination?


To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and type "Hibernation Station" 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. 19. Sponsored by the author; U.S. entries only. Read a Cynsations guest post about the book by Michelle.

More News

Congratulations to the finalists in the Young People's Literature category of the National Book Award: Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown); Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel); Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Knopf); Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad/HarperCollins); Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad/HarperCollins).Note: click links from author names for more information about them and their books. Young People’s Literature Judges: Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Tor Seidler, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zarr.

In It for the Long Haul by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "...what helps a writer accomplish this goal – and what can sabotage their efforts."

Canadian Awards from ACHOCKABLOG. Note: finalists for the 2010 Information Book Award and winner of the Inaugural Lane Andersen Award in the young reader category.

When You Discover Your Agent's Not That Into You by Brodi Ashton from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "I’m still friends with my first agent, and I admit I learned so much from him. But I would rather be in the query pool, collecting a thousand rejections, than be with an agent whose reaction to my book was, 'Meh.'" See also The All-Important First Chapter by Valerie Kemp from Nathan.

Babybaby Pie of the Month - Amy Schwartz from Heather Vogel Frederick. Peek: "I wanted to tie the pie theme into the story as much as possible. I interwove a little side story involving a freshly baked pie, and I also tried to use a palette reminiscent of a berry pie, purples and blues and lavenders. I used berry patterns, and tried to use round and pie-like shapes. I personified my moon, hoping to reinforce the dreamy quality of the story."

Writing Fight Scenes by Leah Cypress, featuring insights from Jenny Moss, Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, Dawn Metcalf, Lia Keyes, and Caroline Hooton, from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek from Ellen: "We have to know that in a fight, the brain doesn't completely go blank. Capturing the heightened intensity of the character's emotions is what makes a fight scene really come alive."

Literary Conversations: What Can You Add? by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "...our writing doesn’t stand alone. It stands in the stream of novels and fiction written by our generation. But it also stands in the context of the time line of our culture and the canon of literature of our culture." Read a Cynsations guest post by Darcy on Creating Book Trailers.

Will I Make a Lot of Money Writing? by Saundra Mitchell from Making Up Stuff for a Living. Peek: "There’s no quick buck in writing- not even for the much-envied lead title people with their glorious six figure advances." Note: perhaps not the answer writers long to hear, but good for perspective. Saundra breaks it down. Read a Cynsations interview with Saundra.

Playing Ourselves into Wide Open Spaces by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich from Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook Creativity Blog. Peek: "Remember when you were told to 'Go play?' When it was the right thing to do?" Don't miss part two. Read a Cynsations interview with Olugbemisola.

How to Fire Your Agent by Rachel Gardner from Rants and Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "It takes maturity to try and repair the relationship before ending it. There's a lot of fear involved in telling someone that we're not satisfied and asking if there's a way to fix the problems."

Cynsational Blogger Tip: if you're doing a giveaway, be sure to include geographic eligibility (U.S. only? U.S.-Canada? U.K. only? Worldwide?) and the deadline for entries. I've had to pass on linking to several giveaways because I wasn't sure if my round-up would be after the deadline.

Cobwebs Got Your Story? by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker. Peek: "Unsettled, I peer around the corners into the nooks and crannies of the story only to find sheets of lacy cobwebs and the mummified remains of plot bunnies that didn't quiet make it out to the green pasture before I tucked the story away. Dust coats nearly everything, giving my story a surreal, fuzzy feeling."

Native American Youth Literature Widget from JacketFlap. Peek: "This widget highlights children's and young adult books by Native American authors and illustrators. While hundreds of books about American Indians are published every year, Native youth literature creators are among the most underrepresented groups in publishing today." Note: raise awareness and show your support!

Inside the Author's Studio with Andrew Auseon by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "I am very aware that if I didn’t sit down and pound through my pages, or stay up all hours of the night to finish a deadline, then my books would not exist. That’s about as cut-and-dry a situation as I can imagine, and it can cause incredible anxiety. But most days, I am thrilled to have that time to myself..." Note: Congratulations to Bethany on the release of Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010)! See her related posts, Third Time's the Charm, and that article continued.

When You're in This for the Career by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children's Literature. Peek: "If you’re going to stick with short fiction for teens, you’re going to have to hone your craft until you’re the cream of the short fiction crop. And you’re going to have to write what teens want to read instead of what you think they ought to read. In other words, your short fiction will have to entertain a whole lot more than it educates."

Master List of YA Literary Magazines and Journals by S.E. Sinkhorn from maybe genius. Peek: "These are mostly magazines that are on a paying scale, which means they're pro or semi-pro. Some of them don't pay, but are still of a high quality. I'm going to list the magazine/journal along with a link, the age group it's aimed at, and a short description." Source: Alice Pope's SCBWI Market Guide.

Cynsational Author Blogger Tip: make sure visitors to your blog can readily tell who you are and how to find out more about your books. Note: In putting together attributions for weekly links, I've been known to click up to five or six times, trying to figure out whom to credit.

Inkys Awards Short List Announced from Readings Books Music Film. Note: "shortlists for the [Australian] Inky Awards - the teenage-choice YA book awards run by the Centre for Youth Literature and" Honored authors include Justine Larbalestier, Libba Bray, Scott Westerfeld, Maggie Stiefvater, John Green, David Levithan, and Jandy Nelson; see the whole list.

New Agent Interview: John Rudolph, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management by Alice Pope from Alice Pope's SCBWI Market Guide. Peek: "Right now, I’m open to pretty much anything and everything, though I will say that I’m not actively looking for picture book manuscripts unless they’re by author/illustrators."

Congratulations Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels

Congratulations to the latest members of the Texas Sweethearts and Scoundrels--K.A. Holt, Jeanette Larson, Don Tate, and Emma Virjan!

The Crossroads Blog Tour

I'm not involved as a blogger or author, but I look forward to reading the Crossroads Blog Tour.

Cynsational Screening Room

Nightshade by Andrea Cremer (Philomel, Oct. 19, 2010) ARC giveaway from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth. Deadline: midnight Oct. 22. Check out the book trailer below.

Check out the book trailer for Losing Faith by Denise Jaden (Simon Pulse, 2010).

Jennifer Donnelly tells the story behind Revolution from Random House.

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 type "The Wish Stealers" in the subject line LiveJournal, Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are also 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. Read a Cynsations interview with Tracy.

Note: the email link was broken on previous announcements of this giveaway. It should work now. Please try again. My apologies for the inconvenience.

More Personally

Hooray! One of my stories is featured in Girl Meets Boy, a YA anthology, edited by Kelly Milner Halls, which literary agent Jill Cocoran sold this week to Chronicle for spring 2012 release! My story is a companion to one by Joseph Bruchac! I'm especially jazzed because this will be my next piece of Native-themed fiction to reach young readers.

Here's the full scoop from Jill! Additional contributing authors: Chris Cruther, Terry Davis, Rebecca Fjelland Davis, Kelly Milner Halls, James Howe, Randy Powell, Sara Ryan, Terry Trueman, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Ellen Wittlinger.

Cynthia Leitich Smith -- Team Werewolf from David and Kelly at YA Book Reads. Peek: "Did it all start with that little girl in the red hood? I can’t say for sure. But werewolves get a bum rap. Ditto werecats and other werepredators. When I decided to write shape shifters, they first thing I did was my homework." Note: check out the worldwide giveaway and the whole line-up for Book Wars: Vampires Versus Werewolves."

Reminder: want to leave a comment at Cynsations? You can do so at the LiveJournal or MySpace versions of this blog as well as at my facebook author page. I'm also online at Twitter and YouTube.

Reminder: I make an effort to confirm receipt of all interview answers/guest posts. If you did not receive a confirmation from me, please follow up to check status.

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) and Truth with a Capital T by Bethany Hegedus (Delacorte, 2010). Click titles for details!

On a related note, I was honored to see the cover art for Blessed featured by Amy from A Simple Love of Reading.

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 14, 2010

Guest Post: Michelle Meadows on Hibernation Station

By Michelle Meadows

Fuzzy slippers, warm pajamas,

Forest babies and their mamas…

show up early at the station!

Time for winter hibernation.

In the winter, I want to wear cozy pajamas. I want to curl up in a blanket with pillows, snacks, and books. I want to nap and read and nap and have a snack and nap and have another snack and then nap some more.

In the winter, I feel like: Wake me up when it’s Spring! Ever since I was a little girl, I have thought how nice it might be to hibernate in the winter. And this is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote Hibernation Station, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

I wrote the story during a snowy time. One of my goals for the book was to create a fun way to introduce young readers to a variety of hibernating animals. I also set out to create a bedtime story that shows the animals facing the same kind of challenges that kids face when it’s time to settle down—like how the frog feels scared and the chipmunks need more snacks and pillows.

The aspect of hibernation that I find most interesting is the fact that some animals are known as light sleepers and some of them are known as deep sleepers.

So I created an Author’s Note to focus on that point. I hope it will be a good jumping off point for teachers and parents who want to teach kids about hibernation.

Kurt Cyrus created illustrations that go way beyond my wildest dreams. To create the drawings, Kurt thought about what sort of train forest animals would ride. For inspiration, he went back to one of the earliest steam locomotives built in 1829, The Rocket. From the log train to the animal noses, he created details that give the story a whole new dimension.

My hope is that Hibernation Station is a book that parents and kids can snuggle up with. They can ride along as the train clacks along the tracks. I want them to feel part of a special journey.

The final destination? Sleep!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Voice: Tami Lewis Brown on Soar, Elinor!

Tami Lewis Brown is the first-time author of Soar Elinor (FSG, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Elinor Smith was six when she first went for a ride in a rickety “flying machine,” and she was just sixteen when she earned her aviation license in 1928. But not everyone thought that girls should fly.

When male pilots and newspapermen mocked her, Elinor decided to perform an aerial maneuver they thought was impossible: flying under all four bridges that span New York City’s East River.

Gorgeous sweeping illustrations by François Roca show how Elinor pulled off this risky feat skillfully and with style.

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?

From its first spark, Soar, Elinor! seemed meant to be. I grew up in a family of pilots so I’d known Elinor Smith’s incredible story since I was a kid. Elinor’s fell in love with airplanes on her first flight at age six. By sixteen, she was the youngest pilot in the United States, breaking world records for altitude and endurance. This was a story I had to tell!

Elinor wrote an autobiography (Aviatrix by Elinor Smith (Harcourt, 1992)), so it wasn’t hard to pin down the basic facts and write a first draft. But revision was something else.

Soar, Elinor! is nonfiction, and for me, that meant not one detail, not one word of dialogue, not even a single image could be made up.

The archivists at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum helped by pulling out scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photographs, and articles about Elinor.

I joined listservs visited by actual aviation pioneers--pilots from the 1920s and even earlier. I met antique airplane buffs and learned all sorts of practical things about flying a plane in the 1920’s (did you know brakes weren’t commonly installed on airplanes until the 1930’s?). And I flew with John Corradi, an incredible pilot in Culpeper, Virginia, who owns a restored Waco biplane similar to the plane Elinor flew.

All this very specific research came after that first bare-bones draft. With the new information, I added bits and pieces, took out extras, and polished the words. Dozens of drafts later, I thought the manuscript was ready….

Then I arrived for my last residency at Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I submitted Soar, Elinor! and was assigned to a workshop led by Margaret Bechard and Leda Schubert. Fate had stepped in again! Margaret’s husband is an avid private pilot, and they fly his small plane everywhere. Leda is one of the most accomplished nonfiction writers I’ve ever met, and her knowledge and understanding of picture books is unparalleled.

Margaret, Leda, and ten talented student writers put me and my manuscript through the paces in workshop, and both Leda and Margaret met with me outside the group, sharing tips for how I could make this story stand out. Leda showed me how to do more sophisticated photo research and how to put together a nonfiction submission package.

After the residency, I took all the suggestions to heart, made even more extensive revisions, and sent the new and improved Soar off to Melanie Kroupa.

Melanie has edited some of the most beautiful and important nonfiction and fiction published for children- National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (2009) was one of her books. She’d been a speaker at that Vermont College residency, and I’d had the opportunity to mention the manuscript to her. Talk about fate! What were the chances?

As it turned out, Melanie loved the idea of telling Elinor Smith’s story as much as I did. She was the only editor who saw the manuscript, and she acquired it right away.

Then the real work began. Melanie challenged me to craft every line so the prose would stand up to Elinor’s sparkling story. Then she asked me to do something I’d been afraid to do--find Elinor.

I’d searched obituary records so I knew Elinor was still alive, but by that time she was 96 years old. Would she remember her flight under all four East River bridges? Would she be flattered that I was writing her story--or offended? And how could I find a 96-year-old lady with the last name of Smith?

Through a series of what seemed like random coincidences, I located Elinor’s son in Northern California. He told me Elinor would be happy to talk to me about her flying days. We had several wonderful phone calls (although years of aircraft engine noise had taken its toll on her hearing.) Then Elinor invited me to visit her--and to look through all her photographs and papers.

It was a trip I’ll never forget. Meeting this grand lady and aviation pioneer was truly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. She was as bright and spunky as I’d imagined and as agile as a woman half her age.

I struck buried treasure when Elinor’s family brought out box after box of scrapbooks, photos, and memorabilia. I bought a scanner and my great writer friend Zu Vincent helped me scan every single photograph, certificate and paper in Elinor’s collection.

I even got to wear Elinor’s flight helmet and hold her goggles to my face. Wow!

Of course the stories Elinor told me and the gorgeous photographs we found generated a whole new round of revisions, but I knew the sensory details she described--a golden patchwork of potato fields spread across Long Island, engine exhaust that smelled to her like spicy perfume-- would make my book even better.

When François Roca presented his beautiful illustrations, I did a final round of revisions.

Writing the text of this picture book was a long process, but every revision brought me closer to the book it is today. Best of all, it honed writing skills I’ll use in every book I write.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

As I said, I grew up in a flying family. My dad, my mom, even my little sister were pilots. I learned to fly, too, owned a plane, and even practiced aviation law for a while.

It was easy for me to understand Elinor Smith’s passion for the sky. There’s no peace like flying a small plane above the clouds, or landing at a tiny airport at sunset. Some people find flying in small planes terrifying, but I love them.

My father was especially passionate about flying. He passed away just after I started the MFA program at Vermont College. I wanted to write something that would honor his memory, and he would have loved this book.

I was excited about the flying aspect of Elinor's story, but she was so much more than a flier and it's really much more than a story about airplanes and pilots.

When Elinor said she wanted to become a professional pilot, most people said airplanes were no place for a girl. Not only did Elinor ignore them, she planned and executed one of the most daring aerial maneuvers ever accomplished. She flew under all four East River bridges. Overnight she was literally world famous, with her face splashed across newsreels on every continent.

The New Yorker magazine called her a “feminist,” and pilots named her the “Best Woman Pilot in America” beating Amelia Earhart and others. She was just a teenager, but nobody ever doubted she was a top flight pilot again. Elinor’s determination to break through other people's barriers made her a great example for young people in the 1920s and for our time, too.

Sadly, the stock market crashed, Elinor’s funding dried up, and she was forgotten. So many incredible women’s achievements have fallen by the wayside. I’m so glad the story of Elinor's accomplishments won’t be lost forever.

I’m most excited about introducing this pioneer to a new generation. We’ve created a great Teacher’s Guide with lots of fun activities and an amazing kit for Women’s History Month (PDF). Both are free, downloadable on my website.

I’ve also posted actual newsreel footage of Elinor going for altitude and endurance records there, with links to a 1920’s radio station that plays music Elinor would have listened to, links to live air traffic control transmissions from airports all over the country, and more.

Every morning, I post a new milestone of the day from women’s aviation history to my blog On The Fly.

The book is the main thing, of course, but these materials get kids involved with a story that might seem long ago and far away.

Just this morning I visited a kindergarten classroom where the children spontaneously built a life-sized plane from large blocks while listening to ragtime music. It was a riot! Elinor would have loved their enthusiasm.

Elinor discovered her passion at a young age. Once she had a dream nothing could keep her from achieving it. Isn’t that a lesson we can all take to heart?

Cynsational Notes

Nominated for ALA's Amelia Bloomer List

Junior Library Guild selection

“Look out Amelia Earhart… Debut author Brown skillfully builds suspense as Elinor studies each bridge, plans her route, and takes flight, leading to a nail-biting conclusion.” -Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Brown’s prose is crystalline, lively and reads well aloud. Roca captures the air and sky beautifully...”- Kirkus Reviews

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Guest Post: Gail Carson Levine on Outrage, Fairy Tales, and Betsy Red Hoodie

By Gail Carson Levine

Outrage motivated my first picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Scott Nash (HarperCollins, 2002), obviously based on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

In the original tale, when the Boy cries wolf for the third time and there really is a wolf, the villagers abandon him by not coming to his aid.

I’m mad at them for that. They deserve to lose their flock.

After all, the Boy proves twice that he isn’t mature enough to be a shepherd. If he isn’t ready and they let him keep his job, they have an obligation to come no matter how many times he lies.

I’m opposed to letting a child suffer a cruel fate, so to set things straight, I leaped into storytelling. Betsy is utterly honest. She would withstand torture (luckily, it doesn’t come to that!) before she would lie. But she’s up against a clever, desperate, hungry wolf with a plan, and the story takes off from there.

The impetus for Betsy Red Hoodie (HarperCollins, 2010) was to support Betsy Who Cried Wolf. Several editors told me that a second Betsy book would help keep the first alive. Despite the zillions of series in the world, it had never occurred to me that this could be a strategy.

My first step was to read Aesop, who is to blame for “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I was hunting for a fable involving wolves or sheep, and I found a few but nothing just right. Finally, I left fables behind and thought of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Questions often start me revamping fairy tales. In this case, I wondered how Little Red can be taken in by that conniving wolf. And why doesn’t she see in half a second that the creature in her grandma’s bed is not her grandma?

Aha! Rather than a fleshed-out character, she’s really an automaton acting out a moral lesson. So what can I do with the story to make it more complex...and cheerful? The original--even in the version where Little Red and Granny are rescued by the hunter--is a bummer.

My Betsy is nothing like Little Red. She would never be tempted off her path by the wheedling of a strange wolf.

But her best friend and fellow shepherd Zimmo - a familiar wolf - has persuasive power over her, so she takes him with her to Grandma’s house on her first trip there without her mother, despite the warnings of a farmer and a hunter.

Zimmo has a plan, just as he did in the first book, not a diabolical, people-eating plan, but enough of one to give the story picture-book level tension when he deserts Betsy halfway to their destination.

For writers who want to work with folk and fairy tales, I suggest starting with stories that make you mad or leave you scratching your head.

Why does the witch want Rapunzel? Why do the elves stop visiting the shoemaker once they have clothes? Doesn’t Snow White resent being made a servant by the seven dwarfs, after a while anyway?

Think of possible answers.

Then dream up characters who can bring the answers to life. Put them together in a scene or two, and you’re off, careening down the story road in your own pumpkin coach.

Cynsational Notes

Gail expands on the topic of writing from fairy tales in her blog post, “Spinning Fairy Tales.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Voice: Sara Beitia on The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon

Sara Beitia is the first-time author of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon (Flux, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

We've been over this, he says. We have to get to her first.

I know! Olivia snaps. I'm keeping company with a suspected murderer and I've probably become an accessory at this point, and a runaway besides. So don't tell me what I need to do. I'm doing it.

Lily Odilon--local wild child from a small Idaho town--has vanished after spending the night with her sometimes boyfriend, new kid Albert Morales. Suspected in her disappearance, Albert sets out to discover what happened to her. Kidnapped? Runaway? Murder victim?

Joining Albert is Lily's prickly younger sister, Olivia. Their distress is mirrored in a fast-paced narrative that jumps through three timelines. Each thread adds a new level to the mystery and reveals clues that paint a startling picture of all three teens. Their intertwined destinies come to a head in an unconventional climax.

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, and firmly so. I look at this way: A coherent book needs a plot and a structure to serve the plot, and figuring all that out beforehand is like having a rough road map. Rough, because there will always be surprises as you progress, no matter how much you’ve worked out in advance—blind alleys and unexpected turns that keep the process exciting.

I love stories, and I love the mechanics of crafting them. What keeps me from throwing my computer through the window when things aren’t working is taking a step back, going back to that plot touchstone, and then returning with a renewed confidence that I can get the story out and get it right.

We all know that the plot is what happens in the book, but it’s more difficult to spot what makes a good one.

To a beginning writer struggling with this, I would say: Identify the story you want to tell—what does your protagonist want, what stands between her and her goal, and how does she get it? In other words, what is the conflict? And even more, is it a conflict your readers are going to care about? Will it be a satisfying journey? This is a good place to start the work, anyway.

I do a lot of the plot exploration as I work my way through an initial outline, and it can take me weeks and several revisions to work out and get down on paper what I want to do before I begin chapter one. Once I’m down to the actual writing, I will find all sorts of ways in which I need to tweak my outline, but it keeps me sane to have a narrative reference point.

The plot of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon turns heavily on its structure. There are three separate time threads (color coded in the original outline to keep them straight)—a timeline of events leading up to a "present tense" timeline (told in regular past tense); italicized past-tense flashbacks, and a "present tense" timeline marked with time-stamps at the top of the chapters into which the separate threads all flow.

With invaluable input from my editor, these mechanics ended up helping to keep a rather complex plot structure working—a structure that (hopefully) serves the plot by piecing out certain information at certain times, to balance suspense with coherence and propel the story to the end.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your 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?

I find people interesting, so I listen to strangers’ conversations in the line at the grocery store, or at the bank, or in restaurants. I listen to children, teens and adults talking with one another, and I talk with strangers, too. It’s all this sort of inductive research that goes into some internal file marked "characterization."

The world is different from when I was a teen, technologically speaking, but fundamentally, in the things that matter, it’s not so different. The particular problems of adolescence change rapidly, but the essential challenges of growing up are the same.

We were all teens once; for me, this makes the more superficial differences between myself as a teen and teens now—particulars of taste and mode of expression—easier to navigate.

I’m banking a lot on the hope that an authentic teen voice can come from digging into that uniquely painful and exciting interval between childhood and dependence, adulthood and autonomy and responsibility.

Every one of us has or will go through it, and I’m suspicious of adults who have forgotten that trial by fire.

In that spirit, I’m not aiming to write a teen type per se, but individuals. Some of my characters will tend to be more savvy and cool, and some will not. There isn’t just one voice for any stage in life, but many, and they’re unique.

I would not want the best thing about my books to be a sense of timeliness—deft working into the story of Twitter or MGMT or what have you.

Even as I write this, those things are already growing rapidly dated (after all, timeliness is ephemeral—Aristophanes may have kept his audiences in stitches, but now we have to refer to footnotes to even get many of the jokes); so I have to look elsewhere for a longer shelf life, for relevance and a more lasting, authentic voice. Of course, I’m still working on that.

As for Albert Morales, the protagonist of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon—I’m not really sure how I came to understand him, only that I did. It can’t hurt that I don’t feel so far removed from my adolescent self. I got caught up in Albert’s story, and he became very real to me; maybe that was what freed that tricky thing called "voice." I remember vividly the way I felt as a teenager—the good the bad and the ugly—and I can only hope that this carries through in my writing to cover a multitude of the squarer sins. (Do the kids still say "square"?)

My advice to other writers pondering voice is stupidly simple (and to be taken with a grain of salt from this newbie): Pay attention—not only to what people say, but to the thoughts, feelings and context behind it; pay attention to how writers more skilled than you capture voice, and when you’re doing your own writing, get caught up.

Cynsational Notes

From Flux: "Sara Beitia (Caldwell, ID) has worked as a staff writer and arts editor for the Boise Weekly, an independent alternative newspaper."

Photo of Sara by Paul Marshall.
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