Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Cat Calls" Short Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith Now Available Free to Nook Readers

My YA short story "Cat Calls" (Candlewick, 2011) is now available for free as an e-book from Barnes & Noble.

"Cat Calls" is set in the Tantalize series universe and features entirely new characters. Here's a peek:

Tiffany's grandma sees something wild in her future -- but is Tiffany prepared for the powerful shape it will take?

I’m what people call “a late bloomer.”

This May, not long after my sixteenth birthday, I finally started my period for the first time and shifted from blah to bombshell overnight.

For me, it was a relief.

My mom, on the other hand, had a full-scale panic attack. Before you could say “Xanax,” she packed me up and shipped me off to my grandmother, who at the time was predicting the future in Missouri off I-35.

Cynsational Notes

Tiff is claws-down the sassiest point-of-view character I've ever written, and this story radiates "animal" in a fierce, sexy, mind-bending kind of way.

You can download "Cat Calls" for free from Barnes & Noble. It's also available for free download to Kindle readers from Amazon.com.

"Cat Calls" was originally published as a short story in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on Reinventing Your Children's Writing Career

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in northwest New Mexico. She has been writing for young readers since 1994.

Her new middle grade novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, illustrated by Abigail Halpin, is published by Atheneum (see graphic excerpt). A sequel is planned for 2012.

Uma is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Please tell us about Uma the Author before.

Well, she came in a couple of incarnations, come to think of it.

Uma 1 was a reteller of traditional stories. She refused to call them "folk tales," spurning the term for its patronizing quality, and published three story collections of which one (The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (August House, 2006)) is still in print and has managed to achieve staying power purely by word of mouth.

When the so-called folk-tale market petered out in the 1990s, Uma 2 began writing culturally grounded realistic picture books (including Monsoon, illustrated by Jamel Akib (FSG, 2003), The Happiest Tree, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee & Low, 2005), and Chachaji's Cup, illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman (Children's Book Press, 2003)).

What inspired your quest to reinvent yourself on a creative/career front? How much of your decision was a function of how children's literature and/or publishing itself has changed over the years?

I suppose, really, in some ways the change was market-driven, but in other ways it was an evolutionary one. I had the sense to realize early on that plotting was not my strong suit, and retelling traditional stories came naturally to me.

Those stories became the place where I served my plot apprenticeship. I studied the patterns and structures and shapes of stories, and the motivations of characters. I puzzled through turning points and singling out the arc of a given tale from the whole web of story in which it came enmeshed.

At some point, I felt ready to begin creating my own characters, by which time it seemed, purely coincidentally, that publishers were also ready to consider my picture book stories. These were set in Indian and Indian-American contexts, and they're all still in print. They are pretty directly narrated: No fancy footwork, clear single viewpoints. But reviewers saw that I was placing my characters in uncommon situations and settings.

The Kirkus review of Chachaji's Cup notes that it is "Doubly valuable for its overall theme, and as a surprisingly rare depiction of an Indian-American family."

Naming Maya (FSG, 2004), a middle grade novel, was similarly the story of an Indian-American girl coming to terms with her family history and the place her parents came from.

By 2005, I was getting restless, and beginning to wonder what would come next. I wanted to play with form and structure.

So I began thinking about the kinds of books I read as a young reader myself--P.G. Wodehouse's quirky silliness and sly social commentary ranked high, as did Gerald Durrell's close eye for the eccentric settings of his childhood memoirs, and Paul Gallico for the loving depictions of common but idiosyncratic people on uncommon journeys.

The result is The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. The sequel, untitled as of now, brings the story to Washington, D.C., thereby turning the nation's capital into an exotic hot spot. But that discussion is for another time.

What were the challenges?

Oh, this business is fraught with challenges, and in the beginning, I saw them all as impediments.

My biggest one was that I never felt I had anyone to show me the way. For quite a long time, I was the only writer of Indian origin writing for the American market. It felt like such a huge step, and I felt so very inadequate to the task.

Then I took a writing class with Judy Morris at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It was a great class, and I learned a lot. I was still, however, very aware that I was trying to do something that was different from the norm.

It was only later that I realized that all those facts weren't necessarily obstacles. They were only that in my own mind.

What were the blessings and ah-ha! moments?

A huge one was the discovery of people who did what I was trying to do.

I found Jamila Gavin's books, and felt I'd found a friend! I've since met Jamila, and she is a friend, a valued one, in the way that writers can find friendship through our common passions and across vast distances. Writing in England, Jamila had stretched her work across continents in much the way that I was trying to do.

And I discovered the 1928 Newbery winner, Dhan Gopal Mukerji. I was touched by the story of his life, as an immigrant from India in the 1920s! The isolation he must have felt!

In contrast, I told myself, I was positively afloat in a sea of company! By the late 1990s, I had the Internet. I had e-mail. I had no excuses.

Sometime during the year I turned 40, I decided that while I would always be a student of writing, it was time to take charge of my own work, to grow my own opinions and push myself where I felt drawn to go.

Please tell us about Uma the Author after.

I can do that best by talking about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

It begins in Takoma Park, Maryland and then leapfrogs to a fictitious hill town in India named Swapnagiri. It's peopled with a vast array of characters--children, adults, and animals. It flirts with the edge between reality and the magical, and spoofs Bollywood films by referring to their conventions and employing a few. And beneath it all is a story of friendships new and old.

It was completely different from anything I'd ever written before.

It didn't start out that way. I thought I was writing another realistic novel in the manner of Naming Maya (FSG, 2004). But as I wrote, this character began to evolve, and she was nothing like anyone I'd written about before. She was a kid with a wild imagination and considerable determination, and she demanded an appropriately quirky, crazy setting.

In 2006, I started teaching at Vermont College, and that is the other part of this journey. I suddenly became aware of a whole community of writers whose central purpose was to enhance, enrich, discover, craft their own paths. I began to realize that I needed to quit being safe, writing things I knew how to write.

Joining the faculty at VCFA gave me the added push off the cliff that I so desperately needed. I fell headlong into this story, and a voice emerged that I could not ignore.

What did you learn along the way?

To trust myself and to be hard on myself, all at once. To trust my wildest dreams and to give my practical half, the self that balked at the dreams, a swift kick in the pants. To read and to reflect seriously on what I'd read. To explore what reading means to my writing self. To set small goals and not get distracted by people who didn't get what I was after.

What advice do you have to other authors who hope to reinvent themselves?

Ask yourself why you write. What made you want to do this in the first place, and is that inner need being satisfied by the kind of writing you do now? If not, where do you long to go?

Take a deep breath. Go there.

The other piece of advice is to read. Read everything related or unrelated to what you're writing. Read books that are current and those that are classics. Read books you love. Read books you hate, books that trouble or puzzle you or make you angry.

Among all those voices, find the spaces that exist for the voices you are crafting.

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss the book trailer for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, which includes some of Abigail Halpin's delightful illustrations from the novel.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Shadow Walkers by Brent Hartinger (Flux, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Zach lives with his grandparents on a remote island in Puget Sound in Washington State. With only his little brother, Gilbert, to keep him company, Zach feels cut off from the world.

But when Gilbert is kidnapped, Zach tries the only thing he can think of to find him: astral projection. Soon, his spirit is soaring through the strange and boundless astral realm—a shadow place. While searching for his brother, Zach meets a boy named Emory, another astral traveler who's intriguing (and cute).

As Zach and Emory track the kidnappers from the astral realm, their bond grows, but each moment could be Gilbert's last. Even worse, there's a menacing, centuries-old creature in their midst that devours souls and possesses physical bodies. And it's hungry for Zach.


Brent says: "I wanted to write an outright supernatural thriller that involved gay teens as leading characters, because that seemed like something fresh and different. I'd like to think their being gay informs the story, but it doesn't define it."

Read the first chapter, check out the discussion guide, and see the review from NPR.

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. In the alternative, you may email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Shadow Walkers" in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST May 27. Note: Author sponsored; U.S.-Canada entries only.

In the video below, Brent offers Seven Reasons Why You Should Watch Shadow Walkers. Note: video also includes (mostly) gratuitous introduction of Brent's adorable cat.



More News & Giveaways

Why It's Important to Stay Positive by Salima Alikhan. Peek: "If you have the capacity to step back from your work, see it as an entity separate from yourself, critique it objectively—all while loving it tenderly and being brokenhearted over it and praying every day that it bears fruit and cradling it like a baby—you are a remarkable human being."

Cynsational Blogger Tip: Use specific, content-focused post titles rather than overly vague ones, teasers that don't pay off and/or side comments. For example, "Well..." is not a great post title for click-through. "Guest Post: P. J. Hoover on When Your Agent Is Your Editor" is a great post title for click-through.

Authors remember their grandparents: Grandpa Felix by Yuyi Morales from PaperTigers. Peek: "He is my abuelo because mama told me so. But he doesn’t remember me."

Featuring Arthur Howard and Liz Garton Scanlon from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Features interior illustrations from Noodle and Lou (Beach Lane, 2011).

20-Book Giveaway in Celebration of the Release of Solstice by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Includes recent mythology-themed, paranormal, and realistic YA books.

How To Use Book Trailers Effectively: Podcast Interview with Darcy Pattison by Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. Peek: "YouTube is just one of the many sites you can load video to, although arguably it is the most important. You need to research where you can load your videos as many sites are audience specific." Source: Mystery Writing Is Murder via An Englishman in New Jersey.

Asking a Published Author to Read Your Work and/or For an Agent Referral by Rachelle Gardener from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "It seems to me the best approach would be not to ask. Wait until the fact that you're a writer comes up in conversation naturally. Then you could throw something in like..." Source: An Englishman in New Jersey.

The Case for Putting a Manuscript in a Drawer by Nathan Bransford. Peek: "It's hard putting a manuscript in the drawer. It's a huge blow to the ego, it's utterly painful to think back of all the time you spent writing that novel and dreaming about what would happen when you're finished and admitting to yourself that you came up short. But it's not time wasted, and you didn't come up short." See also Nathan on Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing, and Control.

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield and Online Bookstore Gift Card Giveaway from Cheryl Rainfield. Note: giveaway features multiple signed copies of Scars (WestSide, 2010, 2011) and $10 bookstore gift cards.

Great Novels Aren't Written--They're Rewritten by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.net Blog. Peek: "Having an everything-is-optional attitude from the beginning is freeing. It allows me to draft with less fuss, because I'm not so worried about making everything perfect the first time. And it helps with the revisions...."

Complications of Gender in the World of Children's Books by Uma Krishnaswami from Women Doing Literary Things. Peek: "No one talks about girls who don’t read. Presumably there are some. Why are we not in a stew about them? And why does everyone talk about boys who don’t read as if they were representative of all boys?" Note: Uma quotes Greg Leitich Smith.

(Book) Siblings Are Good. Twins Can Be Trouble. by Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents. Peek: "...an agent's list can really only have so many of one type of book before it starts getting boring and repetitive. And as far as specific plots and such, one will do."

Rejection Redux by Marlo Garnsworthy from Wordy Birdie. Peek: "I was sifting through the pile this morning and found six 'positive' rejections for a picture book I’d shelved some time ago. Now I’m thinking it might be time to get that text out and revise it." See also Sherrie Peterson on the Magic Rejection Number from Adventures in Children's Publishing. Source: QueryTracker.netBlog.

Interview with Karen Sandler: From Slush Pile to Publication by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "I’d always thought it would be very cool to have more than one agent “fighting” over me. But I loved them both, and it was difficult and sort of heartbreaking to have to choose one."

Beyond Orcs and Elves: Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy for Young Readers by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman's Grimoire. Peek: "You may or may not know that fantasy as a genre started long before Tolkien was born. In fact, people have been telling fantasy stories for as long as there have been people." See also part 2; peek: "There’s a privilege situation that means that most of the demographic writing books aren’t necessarily the same demographic as the kids looking for books in our schools and libraries."

Selling Out in Writing YA Books by Adam Selzer from Author2Author. Peek: "The real challenge for me is to write something that I know is marketable, but which I still like and feel is my own. This can be a fun challenge."

It Was Easier the First Time by Robison Wells from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Not that there's anything I really want to change, but there are a few details that, as I was writing it, I thought were minor. But now that I'm writing the sequel I realize that those things are really important."

Cynsational Book Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win a signed copy of The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien-Jones (Delacorte, 2010). First prize: a hardcover copy. Second and third prize: paperback copies.

To enter the giveaway, comment at this post (click link) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Owl Keeper" in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST May 27. Note: Author sponsored; U.S.-Canada entries only. See Christine on Writing Scary But Not Too Scary for Tweens.

In celebration of the Diversity in YA Fiction Tour, enter to win a copy of two, randomly selected books by participating authors! To enter the giveaway, comment at this post (click link) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Diversity" in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST May 27. Note: author-sponsored; U.S. entries only.

In other news, the winner of an author-autographed copy of Noodle & Lou by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Arthur Howard (Beach Lane, 2011) is Varsha in Houston.

Cynsational Manuscript Critique Giveaway Reminder

In celebration of Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law's recent joint Cynsations interview with YA author Allen Zadoff, she is giving away a critique of up to thirty manuscript pages.

Her response will include a thirty-minute phone call with the author and short, written notes about the submitted work, which can be fiction, nonfiction, or chapter book.

The winner will have two weeks to submit an excerpt for critique. The phone call/feedback will occur within a week after that.

Submissions should be writing targeted to young readers, ages 8 and up (middle grade or YA). The phone call may also touch on any questions the author has about the audience or market for the book, the publishing and submitting process, etc. In other words, anything the author wants to cover!

To enter, comment at Elizabeth and Allen's interview and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. In the alternative, you may email me with "Elizabeth and Allen" in the subject line.

An extra entry will go to those who comment to ask Elizabeth and/or Allen a thoughtful question or make another, related thoughtful comment. Additional extra entries will go to those who tweet, blog, or otherwise promote this link/giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment. Enter deadline: May 31. This giveaway is international--writers from all over the world are eligible.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Voice: Amy Fellner Dominy on OyMG

Amy Fellner Dominy is the first-time author of OyMG (Walker, 2011)(study guide PDF). From the promotional copy:

Ellie Taylor loves nothing better than a good argument. So when she gets accepted to the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp, she's sure that if she wins the final tournament, it'll be her ticket to a scholarship to the best speech school in the country.

Unfortunately, the competition at CSSPA is hot-literally. His name is Devon and, whether she likes it or not, being near him makes her sizzle. Luckily, she's confident enough to take on the challenge-until she begins to suspect that the private scholarship's benefactor has negative feelings toward Jews.

Will hiding her true identity and heritage be worth a shot at her dream?

Debut author Amy Fellner Dominy mixes sweet romance, surprising secrets, and even some matzo ball soup to cook up a funny yet heartfelt story about an outspoken girl who must learn to speak out for herself.


Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I’ve had many, but none quite like my dad.

First of all, you have to know something about me: My inner voice hates me.

You know that inner voice…the one that tells us how we’re doing, and loves to offer comments while we’re writing? Well, mine never has a good thing to say. It usually pipes up with things like, “Your story is boring. You have no talent. Why don’t you give up?”

This is the voice that’s been inside my head for as long as I can remember.

But there’s another voice that’s also been inside my head. My dad’s voice. And that voice has always told me, “You’re good. You’re worthy. You can. You should. You will.”

When I was thirteen, I wrote a story that my dad thought was so good, he encouraged me to submit it for publication. I did. The story was rejected, but what stayed with me was his belief that I was good enough to be published.

All through my life, he continued to encourage and to believe. I think we all need a voice like that. Whether it’s from a parent, a friend, a critique partner, or a mentor. So when fear, panic or self-doubt expresses itself through your inner voice, you can drown it out with another.

My dad died in 2007—before I sold OyMG. I’m so sad I can’t share this with him. But I’m also blessed that I had him as long as I did.

And that I still have his voice inside my head, and my heart.

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?

If only it were magic! I could have really used some with this book. Ellie Taylor, the protagonist of OyMG, was a big problem for me. I think I decided who she should be/needed to be before I actually listened to her.

Normally, I “listen” to my characters by writing out monologues. I try not to have any preconceived ideas and see what comes out. Very simply, I start with a pad and paper. No computer—all this is long-hand.

I begin with a question that has to do with a topic or theme from the book. Then, I answer the way the character would. Eventually, it starts to flow as a stream-of-consciousness rant.

For instance, one of the themes in the book is Ellie’s comfort with her identity as a Jew. I asked Ellie, “How would you feel about bringing a matzo sandwich to school for lunch?”

(Matzo is a flat bread Jews eat during the Passover holiday.)

If Ellie said, “Bring matzo to school?—I’d rather starve.” I get a much different feel for her than if she said, “What’s the big deal—it’s just a giant cracker?”

For me, these monologues are a great way to develop the personality and voice of my characters.

The danger is that I sometimes start with an idea of what I want my character to think or believe. For instance, I thought Ellie would feel insecure about her religious differences in a camp where she was the only Jewish student. Because of that, I had troubles developing the story at first. It wasn’t until I took a big break and came back to it with no pre-conceived ideas, that I finally “heard” Ellie. And she was completely confident and sure of herself.

That changed everything…and the story came to life. This is sometimes just a process of trial and error, and then having a sense of what is “right.”

I should also add that I do like to eavesdrop on teens, and because I have two of them in my house, it just happens naturally. My daughter swears that my best lines are stolen from her. (She may be right!)

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews says: "Dominy’s debut balances light and heavy subject matter with ease.... Readers who like their frothy romance with a bracing dash of serious social issues will be clamoring for seconds."

Find Amy at facebook and twitter.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Interview: Publisher Elizabeth Law & Author Allen Zadoff, Plus Giveaway of Partial Manuscript Critique By Elizabeth

Today at Cynsations, I'm honored to feature a conversation between Egmont USA publisher Elizabeth Law and her author Allen Zadoff.

Elizabeth Law is Vice President and Publisher of Egmont USA, where their motto is “we turn writers into authors and children into lifelong readers.”

Egmont specializes in fiction for ages 8 and up, and among the authors Elizabeth currently works with are Mike A. Lancaster, J&P Voelkel, Cara Chow, Micol Ostow and Allen Zadoff.

Follow her on Twitter @EgmontGal. Read a 2008 Cynsations interview with Elizabeth.

EL photo cutline: With regard to
My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies: "We were very relieved when the final jacket was chosen!" Note: keep reading to find out why!

Allen Zadoff is the author of the memoir Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin (Da Capo Press, 2007), and his young adult novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have (Egmont, 2009, 2011)(excerpt) received the 2010 Sid Fleischman Humor Award and has been optioned for a feature film. His new novel, My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies, is available now from Egmont USA.

He currently works as a writer and writing coach in Los Angeles.

To both, what were you like as a teen—both as a reader and more generally?

EL photo cutline: "Here I am in ninth or tenth grade, on that most joyful of holidays, Christmas Day. (Historians note I am wearing a mood ring!)."

EL: Let's just say that as a teen I experienced plenty of the misery and rejection that have made me an empathetic editor of YA novels.

Fortunately, in those years, the groundbreaking YA books were just coming out. They were about dark subjects that a lot of people in those days thought teenagers shouldn’t be hearing about -- things like drugs and rape and being gay.

In seventh grade, a neighbor even called my mother and told her I shouldn’t be reading Go Ask Alice (Simon Pulse, 1971). But I was very drawn to books that showed kids rebelling at all the pressure to achieve and fit in that I was feeling.

Two books that I remember really expressed my anger at the time were a long-forgotten novel of Rosemary Wells’ called None of the Above (1974), and the M.E. Kerr classic Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (1972).

AZ: I was a relaxed, happy teen. Thin and well adjusted.

Photo cutline: see left.

Elizabeth and Allen, how did you connect with one another?

AZ: Elizabeth says that when she read my memoir Hungry she thought “this guy could write YA.” When she became publisher at Egmont, she asked me to bring her something.

It was the YA equivalent of an actor getting the call from Spielberg. I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t know much about the field. I called it “Y What?” But I knew I was supposed to write about my teen years, and that was very natural to me. The voice was natural.

I showed up with fifty pages of the book that was to become Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have. Elizabeth must have liked what she saw because she signed me to a two-book deal at Egmont. That’s a lot of faith in a new author! The second book of that deal is coming out now. It’s called My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies.

Elizabeth, what were your thoughts on first reading Allen’s work? What about it appealed to you?

EL: Food, Girls was called "Invisible" when it came in to me, and I know exactly when I decided to acquire it. There’s a scene where Andy is standing in the back of his homeroom wondering whether he can fit into his school's new desks. The school has just switched over to those little half-desks where the chair is attached, and Andy weighs 306 pounds. What if he can’t take his seat? I felt so much heartache for that kid.

I didn't really know what a star we had in Allen, though, till his first revision came in. When I sent him the first editorial letter on Food, Girls, I asked for a stronger final third of the book, and I had sort of pointed out that a few of the characters were a bit two-dimensional. But I didn’t really ask him for too much rewriting--the story was funny and working well already.

Then the revision blew me away. Supporting characters I had barely noticed were now fully rounded people, jokes were sharper, there was a new, painful scene with Andy’s best friend, and the ending was wonderful. Allen hadn't approached my edits like a checklist, he had taken what I said and then gone much further.

By the way, after I sent off that first editorial letter to Allen, he said “your notes were helpful.”

I thought “‘Notes’? He’s calling my carefully crafted editorial letter ‘notes’?”

Now I realize that’s how people in the TV and theater business refer to feedback. As notes. So I’ve stopped taking it personally.

AZ: Right, we call them “notes” in television and film. I didn’t know you were insulted by that.

EL: This interview is getting more interesting!

Photo cutline: Doug Pocock, Managing Director of Egmont USA, Allen Zadoff, and Allen's literary agent Stuart Krichevsky.

Elizabeth, could you share with us how you approach a manuscript in preparing feedback?

EL: I hope I’m not giving away an industry secret, but Deborah Brodie at Viking taught me to first praise, praise, praise the author before asking any questions about the story or even beginning to hint that an aspect of the book might need to be rethought. She called it “yummying up” the editorial letter. That was a really important lesson. Now I’m always careful to say nice things but I still probably don’t give enough positive feedback.

Other than that, it’s different with every author and every book. My Life, the Theater went through more rounds of revision than Food, Girls. And while I remember tweaking some chapter endings and working through some of the technical theater stuff, most of our discussions in My Life seemed to be character based.

How long ago would the father have died for the kind of grief Adam was going through in the book? Would two characters have time to really fall in love, or would they just be getting together? How much room was there to explore Adam’s relationship with his brother in a book that was more about the loss of his father? How much did we need to know about another character’s back story? Or one of my favorites…if Adam was up in the catwalk all day at one point, where would he go to the bathroom?

Allen, how do you process editorial feedback and apply it?

AZ: I used to process it well, but now that I know the praise thing is a setup, I’m not sure how I feel.

But seriously, the ego is always hurt when first receiving notes. I think it’s natural because the author really only wants to hear one thing: “It’s genius. Don’t change a word.”

But that’s not the real world, and it’s not what makes you a better author. The most important thing I’ve learned is that the hurt reaction is just the first impulse. I don’t have to do anything about it. I let it pass like a summer storm.

Once it’s blown itself out, I move to the more interesting place of sorting out the feedback. They generally fall into four categories.

  • 1. Notes I agree with.
  • 2. Notes I disagree with.
  • 3. Notes I intuitively feel are wrong, but I’m not sure.
  • 4. Notes I intuitively feel are right, but I’m not sure.
  • As I think about it, there is a fifth category: Notes I don’t understand and I need more clarification.

That happened with some notes for My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies. So I categorized them. Then I sat with them for a time. Only then did I talk through everything with my editor and determine a course of action.

Earlier EL, described getting a Food, Girls draft back from me that had much deeper changes than what she’d asked for in her editorial letter. That’s because I consider notes a jumping-off point. A great set of notes will open up story ideas I hadn’t considered previously or illuminate areas where I had a blind spot.

I consider every rewrite an opportunity to ask myself if I’m telling the story in the best, most dramatic, most interesting, most specific way possible. That’s why I can get four or five notes and come back with a deep rewrite.

This is such an interesting question. I could do a whole seminar on this topic for writers. I think it’s so important to learn how to process notes and use them without it feeling like a personal attack. In fact it’s the writer’s job to learn how to do this. It’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Allen, your debut YA novel, Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have (Egmont, 2009) was winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Congratulations! What advice do you have for writers on writing humor? (Your answer should be useful and funny—no pressure!)

AZ: Write like your life depends on it...and your zipper is open.

Allen, congratulations on the release of My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies (Egmont, 2011)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

AZ: My Life, The Theater is the story of a boy who is hiding out in the theater after the sudden death of his father two years earlier. He’s a techie (a member of the backstage crew), and he falls in love with an actress. That’s forbidden in his school because the actors and techies are at war.

The book is set during a production of "A Midsummer’s Night Dream" and features a 500-pound gay director, an annoying student designer with a fake British accent, and an angry little dog. You know, a typical theater story.

Allen, what was the initial spark? What was the timeline from that spark to completion, and what were the major events—challenges and triumphs—along the way?

AZ: I grew up in the theater, and it was a great passion of mine, first as an actor and later as a director. I wanted to write a book that brought a general audience into the world of the theater, took them behind the scenes to see the passionate, crazy, quirky world that exists there.

I wanted a book that theater people would love, and non-theater people would find amazing in that way great books can introduce you to a world you knew nothing about.

I was also processing my mom’s illness at the time, and I wanted to explore how you move on after a tragedy.

I knew My Life, The Theater was going to be a funny book, too. How do you mix funny and tragic? That was one of the major challenges of writing the book. I did okay with it, but I’m still learning. Luckily, I’ve got great teachers. Chekhov and Shakespeare, to name two.

Allen, what lessons learned from writing your first novel did you apply to your second?


AZ: The main lesson was: Write faster. Elizabeth Law is waiting for a draft.

Elizabeth, how does Allen’s work fit into the greater conversation of YA literature? Who are authors with a parallel vibe? What is he saying that no one else is?

EL: I love this question. I read everything by Chris Crutcher, Adam Rapp, Pete Hautman—they’re all writers I think are terrific.

But they’re also all such tough guys! Allen’s humor is the first thing everyone comments on, and I think it’s what pulls us into his books. But it’s his characters’ vulnerability and openness that give his books such impact.

And that’s a unique aspect of his writing—no one else is depicting the fragile pain of being a guy in high school in quite the same way. And then making us laugh about it.

AZ: Hey! I want to be a tough guy, too!

Allen, you have a blog and tweet. How do you approach each? What is your strategy toward author promotion more generally?

AZ: I’m still working on defining what those things are for me. Right now, readers can visit my blog or follow me on Twitter to find out more about me, my passions and preoccupations, and get some behind-the-scenes snapshots of the author’s life. I share reviews, photos, links, events, and everything that’s going on with me and the books.

But I don’t know. Maybe that’s a little boring. I might start tweeting as page 27 of my book. “@p.27 says: Who the hell is p. 28? Why is he always breathing down my neck? Creepy.”

To both, there’s a lot of talk about attracting and holding boy readers. What do you see as the challenges? The bright spots? Is there anything you’d like to add to that conversation?

EL: I’ll tell you a particular challenge with what we call “boy novels”—doing jackets that a girl reader will find appealing but that a boy won’t be embarrassed to carry around.

We went through many iterations of the jacket of My Life, The Theater....

In fact the galley has an entirely different cover than the final book. The designer would try different things and show us, and every time I really liked one, Allen and his agent rejected it. It was a classic example of girl taste vs. boy taste.

EL photo cutline: "The galley for My Life, the Theater and Other Tragedies had to be printed for the sales reps and reviewers before the jacket was finalized. This looks nothing like the final jacket!"

AZ: I don’t know how to attract boy readers; I only know how to write, and I hope if I do it honestly, both guys and girls will be into the books. But on the more practical question of book covers, I want them to have some cool factor.

I’m very open to input from the publisher and salespeople on this because they really know their business, but if something makes me cringe, I have to speak up!


EL
photo cutline: "Some of the rejected covers for My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies. Astute eyes will see that the novel was called 'Lighting Summer' at one point."

Allen, if you could go back and talk to your beginner writer self, what would you tell him?

AZ: Your mom is right about medical school. Apply.

But if you persist in wanting to be a writer (like I know you will), remember this: Don’t try to write like other people. Let go of the idea you have to be literary or make words dance like Cormac McCarthy. Just write like you. Your job is learning how to do that.

A hint to get you started: Write like you speak.

Elizabeth, what other Egmont USA authors and books should we know about?

Ooh, it’s hard to pick just a few, but if you like Sarah Dessen, check out The Sweetest Thing by debut author Christina Mandelski (May, 2011).

If you’re hungry for more funny YA after reading Allen’s books, try Notes from the Blender by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin (May, 2011).

If you want a haunting read about a girl who gets pulled into a cult, you must get family by Micol Ostow (April, 2011).

And whatever you like to read, don’t miss Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. That’s coming in September and it will blow your mind.

AZ: Those are great authors. Micol’s book gave me nightmares for a week. But hey, you haven’t sent me Ashes, EL. I want to read it!

To both, is there anything you’d like to add?

EL: Well, yes. Editors dream of finding real writing talent and then working with that author over many books. Those chances don’t come along every day. I feel so lucky to have that opportunity with Allen Zadoff.

AZ: And writers dream of having a long-term collaboration with an editor with a keen eye, a passion for your work, who really has your back. I’ve got all three of those things with EL. Which is probably why I’m writing a third book for Egmont (currently top secret), which you should look for in about a year.

One hint: It’s my first book set in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last twelve years. Expect a lot of yoga, cars, beautiful girls, and dieting.

Cynsational Manuscript Critique Giveaway

Photo cutline: EL and AZ have a drink to celebrate surviving adolescence.

Elizabeth Law is offering a thirty-page manuscript critique giveaway.

(That's thirty pages of your manuscript, not thirty pages of her feedback.)

Her response will include a thirty-minute phone call with the author and short, written notes about the submitted work, which can be fiction, nonfiction, or chapter book.

The winner will have two weeks to submit an excerpt for critique. The phone call/feedback will occur within a week after that.

Submissions should be writing targeted to young readers, ages 8 and up.

The phone call may also touch on any questions the author has about the audience or market for the book, the publishing and submitting process, etc. In other words, anything the author wants to cover!

To enter, comment on this entry and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) to foil spanners or a link to an email address. In the alternative, you can also email me directly, if you're especially concerned about privacy. I won't use the emails for any future purpose.

An extra entry will go to those who comment to ask Elizabeth and/or Allen a thoughtful question or make another, related thoughtful comment. Additional extra entries will go to those who tweet, blog, or otherwise promote this link/giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment.

Enter deadline: May 31.

This giveaway is international--writers from all over the world are eligible.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New Voice: Clete Barrett Smith on Aliens on Vacation

Clete Barrett Smith is the first-time author of Aliens on Vacation (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Scrub isn’t happy about leaving Florida and his friends to summer with his crazy grandmother in “Middle-of-Nowhere,” Washington.

Arriving at her Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, he isn’t surprised by its the-60’s-meets-Star-Wars décor, but he is surprised by the weird-looking guests.

It turns out that each room in the inn is an off-earth portal and his grandma the gate-keeper, allowing aliens to vacation on Earth. Grandma desperately needs Scrub’s help monitoring the visitors, shopping for cartloads of aluminum-foil for dinner, and taking rambunctious alien kids, that glow-in-the-dark and look like trees, camping.


The problem is, the town sheriff, already suspicious about Granny, is a scout leader camping in the same spot.


Will Scrub blow Granny’s cover, forcing the B&B to shut down for good, or will the intergalactic police have to intervene?


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

When I was born my parents were teenagers without many child-rearing resources. But they did have a library card, which turned out to be all the three of us needed.

My entertainment consisted of the thousands of stories they read to me, while their entertainment was watching me run around the house, in character, acting out scenes from the books.

Keeping characters alive through imaginative play—long after reading the last page of the book—was great training for becoming a fiction writer.

We lived in an area surrounded by a lot of forests but not very many houses, so after I got a little older (and when I wasn’t reading) you could usually find me playing out in the woods.

Actually, you probably wouldn’t have been able to find me, and that was kind of the point. Without any parents or teachers out there telling us what we could or couldn’t do, the forest seemed like a place where anything could happen. It was the perfect setting to imagine my favorite book characters continuing their adventures.

When I started to write stories for young readers, I wanted to capture that sense I had as a child that the great outdoors was a mysterious, magical place. The lives of kids are very different these days, and I don’t think enough of them get a chance to explore new places all by themselves anymore. So I wanted to give them that feeling in a story.

For the setting of my debut novel, I picked a place that I had fallen in love with as a kid: the foothills of Mt. Baker in Washington State. There are forests, rivers, waterfalls, a mountain range with snow-capped peaks; it’s breathtaking country. And my main character is a 12-year-old boy who learns about a big secret taking place out there. It turns out that anything really can happen in those woods: in my story, aliens are vacationing on Earth in disguise.

I always knew that I wanted to write stories and I’m thrilled to be able to share my first book with young readers. My dream is that somewhere out there, a kid will read this story and then go outside to play, keeping my characters alive in a brand new adventure.

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

When I was a kid, the middle grade/YA market was not nearly as robust as it is now, and I definitely wanted to start reading adult books at an early age. Genre fiction was a great entry point into that world.

I remember approaching my fourth grade teacher’s desk for one of our one-on-one reading conferences.

I brought Peter Benchley’s Jaws (Bantam, 1974) and Stephen King’s Firestarter (Viking Press, 1980) with me.

“I really liked both of these,” I told her, “so we can talk about either one.”

(Wherever you are now, Mrs. Pooleon, thank you for keeping a straight face during our conferences.)

Okay, so these are maybe not the most appropriate examples of reading material for ten-year-olds, but I do think there are good reasons that genre fiction appeals to young readers, especially sci-fi/fantasy. These are usually tightly plotted, fast moving stories with a page-turning combination of action and interesting ideas. And perhaps most importantly—at least for me as a young reader—they were not specifically marketed to kids. There is a subversive thrill in reading something that is not meant for you.

The series that probably had the biggest influence on my debut novel was the MythAdventure series by Robert Asprin (1978-). These stories came with all of the trappings of a fantasy series—magic, sorcerer’s apprentices, demons, dragons, etc.—but were told in a pun-heavy tongue-in-cheek style that had fun with the premise. I devoured these books in middle school, and it was the first time I had seen humor woven in so effectively with a fantasy story.

I am reminded of these books when I think about the genesis of the idea for Aliens on Vacation. I have always loved stories about aliens, and the visitors always have some Big Important Purpose for coming to Earth. They want to steal our water, or take over our bodies, or demolish our planet to make way for an interstellar freeway. Even E.T., who was here peacefully, was on a botanical research trip.

One day I thought to myself, “Wait a minute . . . what if they’re just coming here to hang out?” I decided that I wanted to write a funny sci-fi book that turned some of the genre’s conventions upside-down.

I think that all of the hours I spent with Robert Asprin as a kid probably had something to do with that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Critique Group Interview: Joyce Sweeney

Learn about Joyce Sweeney.

[Joyce in black-and-blue with her most famous graduate student, author Alex Flinn. Alex is holding A Kiss In Time (HarperCollins, 2009); see the new cover.]

Thank you for inviting us to peek in on your group! Who are the members?

I have three ongoing critique groups now, one on Tuesday afternoon, one on Wednesday morning and the flagship group on Thursday night, which has been meeting since 1994.

How did you all come together?

I saw the need and gave it a try. I had been teaching five-week writing classes through the Florida Center for the Book, and I would see people making such strides during the five weeks, then almost immediately losing momentum. I realized people need ongoing support and a team of cheerleaders to be able to invest the years of work it usually takes to get published.

How do you structure your schedule, meetings, and menus (if applicable)?

The format of the group is: read and critique, and whoever reads on a given session hands the work in to me for line editing, margin tutorial overall assessment, etc.

I give two grades...you either get an A plus or you don't. A plus means, whatever level you are on, I'm seeing good progress.

We also stop the class and "teach" something if an important topic comes up. So it's both a workshop and a critique group.

It's nice to offer the three time slots so we can accommodate people with day jobs, teachers, stay at home moms, everyone!

The Tuesday people never eat, even if treats are brought in. The Wednesday people who come to my house have a tendency to stop at muffin and doughnut places and bring breakfast.

The Thursday class is best...one of the members, Victoria Allman is a chef...she makes us wonderful treats!

Where do you meet? Why is that space good for y'all?

Tuesdays are at a member's house. Wednesday is my house. Thursday is in downtown Fort Lauderdale in a board room at the Sun Sentinel.

We used public spaces when we started in the nineties, and we've evolved toward meeting in people's homes. But I'm used to the Thursdays being in an office space, and I wouldn't change it. It works for that group.

Word on the street is that you've basically launched the Florida youth writing community! Tell us about your inner teacher/critiquer?

Well, my formula is something like this: the group is invitation-only...I only let people in if I see some real potential that they could get published someday.

Ours are workshops about getting published; you're expected to try at some point, when you have a project that's ready.

In the meantime, I channel my teachers, Daniel Keyes and Walter Tevis, to teach craft as assiduously as a Masters Program would.

SCBWI has had a huge impact on my success rate, feeding me both talented writers and a way for me to meet agents and editors and make referrals.

Finally, the most important thing is...I keep people in the game...getting published takes years longer than people think...without help you get discouraged.

My students will tell you I have a hot-line service...if you feel like quitting, you call me. That's probably the most important thing I do.

Why do you love to mentor/teach?

My father and mother were both talented at teaching, although neither was a teacher by profession. I just get so excited, seeing people progress...and when they make it all the way through the publishing gauntlet to get a book contract...I can't describe the elation I feel.

There's nothing better.

What do you gain from the process?

Well, it benefits me as far as growing my businesses...now I do these workshops, I do weekend retreats with my partner Jamie Morris, and I have a manuscript critiquing service too...people want to work with a teacher who gets people published.

So it's made me a professional success...but as I said above, the personal satisfaction is what it's all about.

Including yourself, who's your big-picture person? Your logic guru? Your poet? The line-editor?

If I understand the question, in each group there are roles that emerge.

A lot of people use critique time to line edit, but I discourage that. On a given day, the writer needs to know, "Am I on track with what I'm trying to do, and if not, why not?"

The group knows each person, their strengths and weaknesses their hopes and fears for the project. I.e., "Should I be writing this in two points of view or not?"

We try to address the big things: "Hey, you had conquered info dumping, but you've had a relapse here." Or, "yes you have a poetic voice, but it's time to get the plot moving."

The beauty of it is they know each other and care about each other, so the critiquing is personal and usually very on target.

And the environment is safe and never harsh. That's my job. We set a tone in every group that we are not competing, one-upping or trying to shame or hurt anyone...we're all in this together and the rising tide lifts all the boats.

What other superpowers have I missed?

I battle the inner critic. The inner critic is evil and makes you quit. I remind people 24-7 how talented they are and how they deserve a shot just as much as the published people out there.

We have such a great situation now because my newer people get to see my students from the past such as Alex Flinn walking around having a magnificent career...they have built in role models right in front of them...that makes it all seem more real and doable.

What have been a few of your most glowing moments? Biggest challenges? The memories that stand out?

Recently I had a glowing moment. People drop out of these groups and give up on writing all the time...sometimes when it's a really talented person, it literally breaks my heart.

I had a student like that, Dennis Bailey. Magnificent writer. Dropped out and I barely had contact with him for 18 years. This year, he came back like the prodigal son...and he is so ready to do it now. That is a thrill for me.

My biggest challenge is holding them back. They see the people who are ready querying agents and the minute they get a credible draft they want to play, too. But it's often best to wait a whole year after you think you're amazing and get a little bit more amazing before you tackle New York.

The memories that stand out are 29 in all...each time we have a "magic bean" ceremony for someone who had a book accepted.

I have tokens in the form of guanacaste seeds, which you can only get when you get a book accepted.

We have a wild pagan ceremony in the group, shaking rattles, etc., and I present the bean. It's very cool.

[Joyce "beans" Stacy B. Davids.]

How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

I'm a lot more confident than when I started. I never dreamed we could get so many people published. I'm more deeply involved with the students. They're more deeply involved with each other. Everyone knows we've got something special, and we all cherish it.

Each of my three groups has its own personality. The Tuesdays are very serious students and are very loving to each other. I call them the Panda Bears. The Wednesdays are noisy and enthusiastic and very ambitious. I call them the Dolphins. The Thursdays carry the responsibility of being the flagship...they have the most people who are published and agented and they are very proud to be in that group. I call them the Lions.

What makes your group special?

The love and support they have for each other and the love they know I have for them.

What do you see in your crystal ball?

I see a magic bean ceremony for Steven Dos Santos, who has written the most amazing dystopia I've ever read.
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