Friday, March 11, 2011

New Voice: Shawn Goodman on Something Like Hope

Shawn Goodman is the first-time author of Something Like Hope (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Shavonne is a fierce and desperate seventeen year-old who finds herself in a large juvenile lockup hundreds of miles from home. She wants to turn her life around before her eighteenth birthday, but her problems seem too big, and time is running out.

Amidst corrupt guards, out-of-control girls, and shadows from her past, Shavonne must find the courage to fight for a redemption she’s not sure she deserves.

This gritty and unflinchingly honest look at life in juvenile detention, winner of the 2009 Delacorte Contest, will break your heart, change the way you think about “troubled” teens, and ultimately, leave you feeling something like hope.


What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence your debut book?

I hated reading until I got my hands on The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (Bantam, 1980). I was fifteen, and I remember staying up late reading by flashlight; my parents thought something was wrong with me because, for several days (I was and remain a very slow reader), I hardly came out of my room or played ball with my friends.


It was an awakening of sorts. I hadn’t known books like that existed. Before that, all the books I had read seemed like they were written for other people, people who talked differently and cared about different things. People who had no idea about my experiences or what was important to me.

And every day in English class, it was this slow death picking through irrelevant plots to find examples of symbolism, and foreshadowing. None of it meant anything to me. Which is why, as a YA writer/former reluctant reader, I have to keep in mind the thousand or so reasons kids have to not read.

On the surface there’s the usual things, the competing formats of television, social networking, YouTube, and video games that increasingly incorporate fairly complex narrative structures.

But it’s the deeper reasons concern me most, the ones that point to the disengaged kids who have given up on reading, and learning new things about the world. And it is for them that I try and write books with short engaging chapters, plenty of action and dialogue, and strong emotional content.

And I avoid big words, which is not to say that kids won’t understand; they do. But it’s more about establishing the right rhythm and cadence, like when kids are free from any adults and they talk to each other in this quick, easy, unobstructed way. Their language is infinitely flexible because it’s not bound by the rules, responsibilities, and conventions that govern almost everything that we as adults do.

The best YA books really nail that perfectly, and, not surprisingly, kids respond strongly.

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

Originally, I wrote Something Like Hope to process my own experiences working in a girls’ juvenile justice facility. Everything happening around me in those years was extreme and very disturbing, so I didn’t think about frames of reference or where things fell on the spectrum of behavior.

There was so much violence, and despair in those places that the only question was of how to tell the story accurately yet in a way that could be believable. I suspect that this is often the case when dealing with closed systems or groups of invisible people. Do you tell it like it really is, or do you make compromises for the sake of the story?

It’s a big question, and I think, ultimately, readers will have to judge if I responded adequately in Something Like Hope. I suppose I could defer to the standard about doing what’s right for the story, but that might be too simplistic for an emotional book about a character who is desperate and, at times, out of control.

Add to that the fact that she is changing, growing, actually, and reacting to other out-of-control characters, and how can you know what kind of behavior is right or wrong, and if it’s too edgy?

At the risk of sounding vague or mystical, I think that, at least in the case of this book, it comes down to tone. If I had compromised too much and changed the language, say, I took out some of the raw, violent, and offensive language, then I’m pretty sure the tone of the book would end up getting fouled. And if I took out a difficult or disturbing scene, it would have the same effect.

So for the kind of writing I do, which often deals with trauma and shame and, sometimes, redemption, it’s not so much a question of edginess as it is one of tone and how it
all feels.

Cynsational Notes

Shawn Goodman is a writer and school psychologist. His experiences working in several New York State juvenile detention facilities inspired Something Like Hope. He has been an outspoken advocate for juvenile justice reform, and has written and lectured on issues related to special education, foster care, and literacy. Shawn lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and children. Author photo by Sonya Sones.

“Debut novelist Goodman…delivers a gritty, frank tale that doesn't shrink from the harshness of the setting but that also provides a much-needed redemption for both Shavonne and readers.” --Kirkus Reviews

“Goodman's portrait of a life in crisis is heart- and mind- and gut-wrenching; his protagonist is hopped up on rage, surrounded by guards who are physically and emotionally abusive.” --The Horn Book

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Marianna Baer: new official site. Peek: "...received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a BA in art from Oberlin College. She also attended boarding school, where she lived in a tiny dorm called Frost House, the inspiration for her first novel, Frost (Balzer & Bray, September 2011). She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York."

6 1/2 Ways to Create Suspense in Fiction by April Henry from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words. Peek: "Give your characters phobias or fears - and then make them face those fears. Afraid of heights? The final confrontation should take place on a rooftop." See also April on Just Add Tension: How to Make Any Book--But Especially Mysteries and Thrillers--Better from Cynsations.

Writing That Woman by Cayla Kluver from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Peek: "Her beliefs and her philosophy will come through to readers not because she gives us the scoop on repeat, but because those philosophies are part of her DNA."

Our Best Advice for Writing Fantasy by the Inkies from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek from Bryony Pearce: " I reckon you should immerse yourself in your world so much that it seems normal and everyday and then write about it as if it is normal and everyday - almost as if you're writing contemporary urban fiction - you shouldn't feel the need to explain every little thing."

Social Networking: So Many Options, So Little Time by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.com. Peek: "...knowing the why is a crucial first step, because you are projecting an image of yourself out there, and that image will become your brand. Knowing why you're there can help focus your efforts as you make deliberate decisions on exactly what your brand looks like."

The Most Misunderstood Piece of Advice for Young Writers: Write What You Know by Keith Schoch from How to Teach a Novel. Peek: "Maybe those who first shared that adage meant to say, "Know it, by first finding it and experiencing it, and then write it."

Congratulations to the winners and runners-up for the Florida Book Awards! Congratulations to Jan Godown Annino winner in children's literature for She Sang Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader (National Geographic Society) and Christina Diaz Gonzalez, winner in the young adult category for The Red Umbrella (Knopf).

Why They Need Us: The Story Gap by Marc Aronson from Nonfiction Matters. Peek: "Only after the child has been the hero herself, questing into the unknown, can the writing process begin. Adults who judge books solely on writing, on language, do not know how to help children in that first phase of inquiry."

The Making of a Book Trailer by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Spellbinders: Helping Librarians and Educators Create Lifelong Readers. Peek: "In the beginning, book trailers were created with still photography or images, and a running line of text to explain the storyline with music added that fit the mood of the book. Recently, book trailers are being created with live action filming and voice-overs."

3 x 5 Index Card Plotting by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Kimberley's Wanderings. Peek: "I have jumbled notes, jumbled thoughts inside my head and different plot ideas - or ideas for scenes that are all mixed-up in my brain. I need to start organizing those scenes and plot points. Here's where the 3x5 card Plotting Method comes in very handy!" See also Kimberley on Craft, Career & Cheer from Cynsations.

Three Excellent MG-YA Books for 2011 compiled by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Mitali rounds up new/upcoming books with international settings.

How Much Does a Writer Make? by Laura Purdie Salas from Writing the World for Kids. Peek: "Keep in mind, this is only gross income. This doesn't include any of my own expenses--travel, promotion, office supplies, etc.--nor the taxes I have to pay (which worked out to about $17,000)."

Inspiration: Persecuting the Perfectionist by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "Triers are brave. We show up. We know there is work to do. We know it won’t be easy but we try." See also Bethany Hegedus on Between Us Baxters and Truth with a Capital T from Cynsations.

eWriting4Kids: News, Tips, and Opinions for Children's Authors in the Digital Age: a blog from the editor's of Children's Book Insider. See also Kirkus Launches Children's App Discovery Engine from School Library Journal.

Featured Sweetheart: Kate Klimo, VP and Publisher at Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers Group, from The Texas Sweethearts. Peek: "There is no doubt that there is a Harry Potter effect, causing children to jump to older and more complex books earlier than they used to in the old days. But we at Random have seen plenty of evidence, in the way of sales data, that there is always room on the shelves for a new and wonderful picture book—both picture books with very brief text and picture books with more complex text geared to older readers...."

Fighting Cootie-Phobia as a Lady Writer of “Boy Books” by K.A. Holt from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Peek: "So while I write 'boy books' I always have strong female characters. No one needs saving from Prince Charming in my books... Boys and girls work together to solve problems, save the world, get out of detention unscathed, and keep chupacabras from causing difficult situations to worsen." See also K.A. Holt on Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel from Cynsations.

UT Alumna (K.A. Holt) Writes Novels in Haiku Form by Madeline Crum from The Daily Texan. Peek: "Although her company allowed her to bring her child to work for a few months, she was soon faced with a choice: keep a job that would hardly afford decent day care services, or take a risk and freelance from home. After choosing the latter...."

Congratulations to Donna Gephart, the 2011 Children's Writer in Residence at Thurber House! Note: don't miss the previous link for a reminder about the value of persistence.

Querying Age: Are You Too Young or Too Old? by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.net. Peek: "Never, ever, mention your age in a query. You only include the essentials. Your age is not essential."

Recommended Women's History Month Books from The Horn Book. A briefly annotated bibliography.

Marshall Cavendish has announced that publisher Margery Cuyler will be featured on an episode of NBC's series “The Celebrity Apprentice” March 13th. In the episode, the cast featuring celebrities such as Gary Busey and La Toya Jackson will split into two teams and engage themselves in publishing children’s literature. Both teams will author an original children’s picture book to help raise money for charity. Their works will be evaluated by actress Robin Holly and by Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books publisher Margery Cuyler.

Accessibility vs. Immersion by Parker Peevyhouse from The Spectacle. Peek: "I love a book that throws me into a strange setting and assumes I’m intelligent enough to figure out what's going on."

What Is Agent Jill Cocoran Looking For? by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Note: a list of specific types of manuscripts of interest, plus links to additional pertinent information.

Big Bouffant by Kate Hosford, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (Carolrhoda Books, April 2011): An Awesome Giveaway from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth. Deadline: March 18. P.J. is also giving away a copy of Odd Girl In by Jo Whittemore (Aladdin Mix/Simon & Schuster, March 22, 2011), Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky (Candlewick, 2010) and more! Deadline: midnight March 11.

Announcing Nosy Crow: An Imprint of Candlewick Press: In a new partnership, Candlewick will co-publish a majority of independent U.K.-based publisher Nosy Crow's full-color and illustrated titles in the U,S. and Canada. Nosy Crow, an imprint of Candlewick Press, launches with ten children’s titles in fall 2011.

Hoping for a Movie Deal, Part 1 by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Rambles on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "An option gives a production company the exclusive right to begin developing your manuscript into a film. They may have a writer start working on the screenplay; they may begin trying to attach other elements like directors and actors. Or they may sit on it and do nothing."

Andrew Karre - Editorial Director - Carolrhoda Books by Tina Nichols Coury from Tales of the Rushmore Kid. Peek: "A manuscript is an audition for a working partnership, and those partnerships are more fun and more successful when the worker is skillful." Source: April Henry.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos (Balzer & Bray, 2011).



Austin Scene

Austin author-librarian Jeanette Larson spoke on "Loving the Librarian" at an Austin SCBWI meeting, followed by a launch event for her debut children's book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas, illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks (Charlesbridge, 2011).

Highlights of the event included a hummingbird feeder giveaway to one lucky winner!

Author-illustrator Emma J. Virjan chats with author Jo Whittemore.

Authors Brian Yansky and Frances Hill Yanksy.

Authors Betty X. Davis and Lindsey Lane.

Congratulations, Jeanette!

More Personally

Thanks to Sena, for this terrific work of reader art and permission to share it!
Above, Sena has created a depiction a scene from Blessed (Candlewick, 2010), featuring Brad and Quincie at Sabine's party! Click image to enlarge.

Eternal Review by Jessica from Reading Inspires. Peek: "This also answered the 'Which religion is the right religion?' question. Answer: Anything you believe, you're okay. Your guardian angel doesn't discriminate."

Links of the Week: Photo of Rita Williams-Garcia at the NAACP Image Awards and Dana Walrath To Present Sketchbooks at SXSW.

Cynsational Events

YA A to Z Conference, sponsored by the Writers' League of Texas, will be April 15 and April 16 at the Hyatt Regency Austin (208 Barton Springs Road). Cost: $279 WLT Members, $349 Nonmembers (through March 15). See more information. Note: conference faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith.

See additional upcoming Texas events, rounded up by Lindsey Lane.

12th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Fort Myers, Florida. Note: speakers include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Voice: Terry Lynn Johnson on Dogsled Dreams

Terry Lynn Johnson is the first-time author of Dogsled Dreams (4RV Publishing, 2011)(teacher's guide). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Rebecca dreams of becoming a famous sled dog racer.

She's an inventive but self-doubting musher who tackles blinding blizzards, wild animal attacks, puppy training, and flying poo missiles. All of her challenges though, seem easier than living up to the dogs' trust in her abilities.

Rebecca runs her huskies along the crisp trails near Thunder Bay, Ontario, where northern lights flare and dangerous beavers lurk.

Through the bond she shares with the dogs, Rebecca learns that hard work, dedication and living in the moment bring their own rewards.


Who has been your most influential teacher and why?

Since I was ten, I have wanted to be an author. I read voraciously. My favourite class in school was English. I even wrote a really cheesy science fiction chapter book.

But, as it does, life happened, and before I knew it, I was almost forty and still hadn't started on that author thing. I decided to enroll in an online writing course to kick-start me into writing again. Quality of Course based in Ottawa is where I met a wise and generous lady, Joyce White, who would be my tutor for the next three months.

When I started the course, I was set on writing my memoirs about my experiences working as a Park Ranger for twelve years. I also had a dog team for ten years, so I had many stories to share.

The course’s lesson plans began with writing articles for magazines. I researched the markets for outdoor and dog magazines, and wrote many articles as homework for the course.

A few weeks into the course, I was shocked and delighted, checking my email, to find I'd sold my first two articles - on the same day! One of those articles was about a quirky lead dog of mine, entitled "Frozen Turd Wars" published in Dogs in Canada Magazine. I received fan mail from that article, and Joyce began to nudge me toward writing more about my dogs. She told me my passion for sled dogs shines through in the writing and makes it come alive.

I wrote one article for a children’s magazine about racing sled dogs. Joyce saw something there and suggested I should write for middle grade. It’s not something I’d considered before. I don’t have my own kids, and I don’t work with kids. But I do have two step daughters, and watching them develop certainly helps with my writing. Plus, the fact that I also act like a kid sometimes. By the end of the course, every one of my nonfiction articles had been sold to magazines, and a rough draft of my first novel, Dogsled Dreams, was complete.

I felt a little lost after I graduated without a tutor to look over my work. I didn’t believe in my own writing yet. But I revised, and revised again, joined Verla Kay's Message Board for Children's Writers and Illustrators, found a crit partner, and revised again. I sent it out to a few editors, but received only rejections.

After nine rejections, I took another look at it, and revised again. It sold to the next publisher I sent it to. One of the first people I emailed was Joyce, and she was almost as thrilled as I was. It felt so wonderful to share the news with her.

Now I have an agent, Caryn Wiseman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and she gives perceptive suggestions that help make my writing richer.

I think great writing mentors are gold for a writer in any stage of their career. I’ve been very blessed with wise teachers to learn from.

As someone working with a publicist, how did you identify that person? Why did you decide to go with professional help? What steps are the two of you taking to raise awareness of your new release?

I heard about Curious City through my debut group the Elevensies. Kirsten Cappy joined us in a chat one evening, and I was impressed with her free advice for promoting our books as well as our group. Kirsten asks a potential client to send the book for her to read, and then does a free half hour phone consultation to discuss specific ideas suited to that book. At the end, a client may decide to hire her, or just pay for her ideas if you want to use them.

During our call, she tossed out a few ideas that I liked. But mostly, I was sold on her comment, "just call if you want to bounce ideas off me."

I hired her with the plan to just do one of her ideas - a librarian giveaway of my book on the librarian listserv. I had no idea what a school librarian listserv was. But considering there are 14,000 potential librarian book buyers on it, I thought it sounded like a good idea.

As the release date loomed closer, that one task turned into many more. I started feeling overwhelmed with things to do, and passing them on to Kirsten was very welcome. Not only did she take some tasks off my plate, but she listened whenever I had a meltdown, gave free advice and suggestions whenever I had an idea, and basically helped me feel like I was not alone. There was someone else who knew my book, knew the market and what specific ways to get to that market.

Kirsten came up with two inspired ideas that she eventually talked me into doing, and I'm so glad.

First, she designed and printed a four-page booklet with all book information, reviews, and first chapter. It's a very clever and inexpensive way to create interest in the book, without sending the actual book to book sellers. I also have something to bring with me to dogsled races to hand out to fans and mushers. As well, I was able to send them to other dogsled races for distribution.

Her second inspired idea - a junior musher video contest to be held on my website. Junior mushers could submit their video outlining their own "dogsled dreams" and visitors to the site could vote on the best video. This created interest in the book, brought traffic to my website, created dogsledding video content, and provided a solid connect between my book and real life junior mushers. I never would have come up with something so brilliant on my own, never mind have the time or expertise to pull it off.

Here is a list of what Kirsten Cappy of Curious City did for me and Dogsled Dreams:

1. Sent out ARCs to a few of her contacts and got two awesome reviews for Dogsled Dreams from a librarian as well as a famous musher and author.

2. Wrote a press release and distributed.

3. Designed a sell-sheet.

4. School library giveaway.

5. Facebook ad campaign.

6. Indie booksellers mail outs and distribution of promotional material.

7. Moral support and calming presence - priceless.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Guest Post: Ellen Booraem on When Issues Become Side Issues

By Ellen Booraem

When I was developing the protagonist for my middle-grade novel Small Persons With Wings (Dial, 2011), I was charmed to discover that she was from a family with a history of alcoholism.

Oh, good, I thought. This’ll be interesting.

Then Mellie (that’s her name) turned out to be overweight.

Then she got bullied.

Whoa, I thought. Choose an issue and run with it, will ya?

But Mellie isn’t a one-issue kind of girl. And Small Persons With Wings isn’t an issue book—it’s about a kid and her family contending with an ancient pact, a moonstone ring, and silly yet dangerous fairies.

Before long, I had a new attitude: Bring on the issues, but don’t let any one of them take center stage. Let’s make this like actual life, where issues sometimes gang up on you, and often—usually?—refuse to resolve themselves completely.

Issue books certainly have their place on children’s bookshelves. If a kid’s dealing with a bully or family alcoholism, for example, it’s a happy teacher or librarian who can gently recommend a story that illuminates the problem at hand. But people deal with alcoholism and weight issues all their lives—it’s part of their routine, like brushing their teeth and walking the dog. There’s much to be said for simply incorporating the big issues, even racial relations and sexuality, as part of characters’ lives but not the focus of their stories.

Deva Fagan, a fellow Maine kidlit author, has a brown-skinned protagonist in her second middle-grade fantasy, The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle (Henry Holt, 2010). (And Prunella’s on the cover! With actual brown skin!) Skin color is not an issue in the book—it’s pigmentation, no more. While there continue to be race-related themes that have to be explored in fiction—and have been explored very well—I love the idea of a character’s race becoming less a plot driver than a description, like hair color.

How do you do justice to an issue without letting it take over the story? That’s nerve-wracking, I’ll admit. Problems like being overweight and substance abuse and racial prejudice are extremely important to readers, and to some readers they are all-important. I’d never want to be off-hand about a topic that’s crucial to someone else.

The key—as always—is for the story to emerge from characters rather than an intended lesson. If the characters feel real, I figure their troubles and concerns will, too.

In Small Persons With Wings, Mellie’s whole family is overweight. After considerable pondering and background work, the character of Mellie’s mother turned into a woman who has come to terms with her girth. She doesn’t diet, she dresses for “grandeur” rather than trying to cram herself into a smaller size, and she does her best to model healthy eating. But in times of stress she goes for the chocolate chip cookies like anyone else, without excuse or apology. That felt real to me, as did Mellie’s father’s attempt to break his family pattern of alcohol abuse.

I took my usual route to arrive at the characters and their relationships with their demons: I wrote journals in the characters’ voices.

They’re often short and inconsequential (the journals, not the characters), but they always get me where I’m going. In this case, the technique clarified everyone’s attitudes and put the demons in perspective for me.

I suspect some teachers may question the way the bullying resolved itself. Frankly, Mellie never directly confronts the problem, and certainly never solves it. She simply moves to a new town and tries to start over.

For better or worse, that, too, felt real. Sometimes, distance is your best friend: You don’t make a drama out of it—you just go.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Booraem is the author of Small Persons With Wings (Dial, 2011), a fantasy for ages ten and up that has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Her debut novel, The Unnameables (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008) was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a Kirkus Best Book of 2008. A paperback edition will be out in March.

Check out the book trailer for The Unnameables:

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

New Voice: Sarah Jamila Stevenson on The Latte Rebellion

Sarah Jamila Stevenson is the first-time author of The Latte Rebellion (Flux, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Our philosophy is simple: Promote a latte-colored world! —from the Latte Rebellion Manifesto

When high school senior Asha Jamison gets called a "towel head" at a pool party, the racist insult gives Asha and her best friend Carey a great money-making idea for a post-graduation trip. They'll sell T-shirts promoting the Latte Rebellion, a club that raises awareness of mixed-race students.

Seemingly overnight, their "cause" goes viral and the T-shirts become a nationwide fad.

As new chapters spring up from coast to coast, Asha realizes that her simple marketing plan has taken on a life of its own-and it's starting to ruin hers. Asha's once-stellar grades begin to slip, threatening her Ivy League dreams, and her friendship with Carey is hanging by a thread. And when the peaceful underground movement turns militant, Asha's school launches a disciplinary hearing.

Facing expulsion, Asha must decide how much she's willing to risk for something she truly believes in.


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 guess I'm a combination of plotter and plunger. For me, a story idea could start anywhere. An evocative name or turn of phrase that somehow "sings," a plot event, a character, a what-if scenario. And just as every story starts from its own unique spark, every project so far has taken shape a little differently for me.

The Latte Rebellion started with just that phrase popping into my head--"latte rebellion"--and that got me speculating pretty quickly. Soon after that, a character started taking shape—Asha, the narrator—and I was off and running.

Usually, a scene will start forming in my head from that seed of an idea, and if it's the kind of scene that won't leave me alone, I'll start writing. At this point in the process, I take a lot of notes, and I might start a very informal outline.

As I start writing, the plot and character and other ideas start to flow in more quickly, so the notes end up getting a bit more detailed. There's always a fairly long stretch during which I'm writing and outlining and plotting and note-taking all at the same time.

If that sounds messy...yep, it is. In order to organize my thoughts, I often end up drawing a sort of flow chart so I can visualize how the different subplots relate to one another and how they progress in time. My thought process is very visual, so it's easier for me to keep track of everything that way rather than using a more linear plot outline.

In any case, I almost never have a full outline when I start. Often, I'm halfway through the book before I've figured out how it's going to end. But I almost always get there—I just need to have faith that the story will become more fleshed out in my head the more I work on it, even if I'm not quite sure how I'm going to get from Point A to Point B. As I write, though, it becomes clearer to me where the story should naturally go, how the characters would act and react.

Of course, sometimes I do get stuck, and in that case, it's great to have my writing group to bounce ideas off of and help me figure things out. I have an amazing writing critique group!

That's one major piece of advice that I'd offer beginning writers struggling with plot—getting a second (or third, or fourth) opinion on how your story's progressing can be invaluable, especially if those "beta readers" do a lot of reading and writing themselves and can articulate what isn't working. They may be able to help you brainstorm solutions, too.

Also, don't be afraid to take a break from the project, if you're completely stuck. Sometimes you just need a little time away to let your ideas percolate.

Read a lot, and think about what works or didn't work in the plot of those books. Think about what kinds of stories you like to read (or watch), and see if you can incorporate elements of those stories into your own book. If you like suspense, for example, try injecting an element of suspense into your project. Do some experimental writing—ask yourself "what if" and see where it takes you. You might not ultimately use the resulting writing, but the process might usher you in a new creative direction.

The creative brain works in mysterious ways. I am still not entirely sure how I get from that tiny starting idea to a full novel, but it's like pieces of a puzzle slowly falling into place and creating a complete picture. I slide a piece in here, a piece in there, and suddenly I start seeing where the rest of the puzzle pieces are supposed to go.

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?

I did worry about dating my manuscript—in fact, it's something I worry about every time I write a story in a contemporary setting, not only because of how quickly technology changes, but also because of how quickly language changes.

In The Latte Rebellion, I tried to deal with this by making the references to technology as general as I could. It was a challenge, because there are events in the story that depend on technology, specifically the Internet. And some of that technology changed in just the couple of years I was working on the book!

I realized that in order to retain a sense of authenticity, I'd have to update some details. Internet printing services became a lot more widespread, for instance—so I had to cut an entire scene that I really liked in which Asha and her artist cousin spend a marathon evening screenprinting T-shirts. It was something that my editors at Flux pointed out to me early on in the revision process, and though I was sorry to cut the scene, it ultimately made the story feel a lot more contemporary, and it fit in much better with the rest of the plot, too.

Ultimately, though—just to be realistic about it—most books are going to become dated at some point. All I can do is try my best to stick with themes and characters that have staying power, write my stories as well as I can, and try to avoid anything that will date the story too rapidly.

And in the end, I guess I'll just have to keep writing more books to replace the dated ones. And, what do you know, I was planning on doing that anyway.

Cynsational Notes

Check out the book reader guide for The Latte Rebellion.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Guest Post: Uma Krishnaswami Interviews Mark Dahlby of Writers.com/Writers on the Net

Mark Dahlby was a psychotherapist in private practice when he started Writers on the Net/writers.com in 1995. The two are somehow related. Earlier in life he was a carpenter, a mortgage broker, and a graduate student. He edited two books for Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche on Tibetan Bon Buddhism and has written many convoluted essays, a collection of bad poems, and a zillion emails.

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of picture books, a middle grade novel, and early readers. Her picture books include Monsoon, illustrated by Jamel Akib (FSG, 2003), The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee & Low, 2005), Out of the Way! Out of the Way! illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (Tulika, 2010) and Chachaji's Cup, illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman (Children's Book Press, 2003). Her novel is Naming Maya (FSG, 2004), Her upcoming middle grade novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, a Bollywood-themed romp featuring best friends, dancing monkeys, and chocolate, will be published by Atheneum in May 2011, with a sequel due out in 2012. Uma is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Uma: Writers.com has been around for a long time--the first writing school on the Internet. Can you talk about how you began?

Mark: I started writers.com in 1995, so sixteen years now. I'd just gotten on the Internet, and as I'd always been involved with writing, I looked around for resources for writers. There were very few.

The New School for Social Research offered some kind of online writing class for its students, there were a couple of bulletin boards, and Compuserve and AOL were starting areas for writers, or were soon after that.

Although I was in private practice as a psychotherapist, I decided to start a writing community, although I didn't expect it to turn into a business. Mostly, I was curious about what seemed to be a new electronic continent and wanted to participate in the exploration. I bought the writers.com domain for fifty bucks--no one yet knew they were going to be worth more--and started contacting writers.

Initially I meant to set up a center for experimental writing and poetry and to provide mentoring programs. I was enamored with earlier literary relationships in which an established writer would take a young writer under wing: Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1929) being a brilliant example, or Henry Miller's correspondence with Lawrence Durrell.

I started adding classes as an afterthought but that came to dominate what we do.

Uma: And where are you now? How many instructors, how many students? Geographical reach? Anything else you want to tell us about the terrific virtual resource the site has become for writers?

Mark: We have twenty-two instructors right now. I'm not sure how many students we serve in a year, but it's somewhere upward of six hundred. They come from all over the world. The biggest concentration is in the U.S. and Canada, then England and Europe, but we also have students in South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, India, Brazil: any place English speakers interested in writing live.

We draw students preparing for graduate school, first time writers, and surprisingly often, accomplished writers looking for inspiration or wanting to work in another genre. A lot of people who sign up for our courses are writers who want a structure to support them in producing new work or support in refining material for publication.

Uma: I taught for writers.com for 12 years and I have to say--you were always there. Behind the scenes, doing what it took, always an e-mail message away. Can you talk about the many hats you have to wear?

Mark: And I still miss you... I'm the office behind the scenes. Recently, one of the teachers met a student who thought I was a college kid we hired to answer emails. I got a grin out of that. I do answer the emails but am also the accountant, tech guy, secretary, problem solver, and I develop the curriculum.

Uma: Sixteen years down the road, you're not the only virtual writing school. Still, what sets you apart from others who offer online writing classes?

Mark (pictured right): Our teachers. I think we have the most generous split on the Internet in the teacher's favor, and it shows in the quality of writers teaching with us. We have teachers who are pro freelancers and teachers with university teaching careers and wild poets and fiction writers who have published a dozen novels. Everyone who teaches with us has teaching experience and a strong publication record.

We've also kept the business small enough that students involved with writers.com get whatever help they need. Much of our business is repeat business, which is gratifying, and a large number of our students have been referred by a friend or acquaintance who worked with us. I think we're also known because we were the first writing school on the Internet.

We offer a wide-range of classes for beginning to advanced writers: genre fiction and literary fiction, memoir and screenwriting, writing for children and spiritual writing, poetry and creative non-fiction, one-to-one work and classes. So what we offer is of interest to a broad range of writers.

Uma: Do you see changes ahead in how your online classes will be offered, as more and more people take avatars and fancy graphics for granted in their virtual lives?

Mark: Yes, but I don't know how it will look. No forum for classes is perfect so far. Blackboard is the standard in academic settings, but it's expensive and the teachers I know who use it don't like it. Our teachers are working in various ways now: Google groups and Yahoo groups, Nicenet, not so much with listserves anymore. Two of the teachers, Amanda Castleman and Mike Keran, are developing their own platform, which eventually may become our standard.

Uma: You're a writer. You've edited two books for Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Talk about your writing interests.

Mark: I've always been involved with writing or suffered those dispiriting periods when I felt I should be writing and wasn't. I write now when I have a project, and I also sporadically work in my journal, or tinker with a fiction or an essay or a rant. But mostly, these days, I write way too much email. Like most writers, I was infected with the writing germ early in life and never really recovered.

Author Uma Krishnaswami (pictured above).
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