Monday, May 07, 2012

New Voice: Marissa Burt on Storybound

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Marissa Burt is the first-time author of Storybound (HarperCollins, 2012). From the promotional copy:

When Una Fairchild stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, she thinks nothing of opening the cover and diving in. 

But instead of paging through a regular novel, Una suddenly finds herself Written In to the land of Story - a world filled with Heroes and Villains and fairy-tale characters.

But not everything in Story is as magical as it seems. Una must figure out why she has been Written In - and fast - before anyone else discovers her secret. 


Together with her new friend Peter and a talking cat named Sam, Una digs deep into Story's shadowy past. She quickly realizes that she is tied to the world in ways she never could have imagined - and it might be up to her to save it.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

It is a writing truth that should be universally acknowledged that a manuscript in the hands of a good editor is always in want of revision.

When I finished writing Storybound (then titled "The Tale of Una Fairchild"), I went through several rounds of revisions before querying agents. My agent, Laura Langlie, also helped me revise the manuscript. So I felt like it was in pretty good shape when we went on submission.

Oh, how little I knew! When Erica Sussman at Harper asked me if I'd be willing to do an exclusive revision with her I jumped at the opportunity. One phone call with general notes, one editorial letter, and another shorter round of revisions later, we went to acquisitions.

After Harper acquired the offer there was two...or perhaps three?...more revisions. And then copy edits. And first pass pages. And final if-it's-not-too-late tweaks.

When I'm in the midst of revising - one of my favorite parts of the process - I feel like I've just dumped out all the pieces of a difficult jigsaw puzzle. There are times when everything feels like a hot mess, and I despair of any possibility of it all coming together to form anything that remotely makes sense.

But I keep working at it. Another piece here. That corner bit there. Then there's a moment of inspiration. "If I insert this scene, then the others will come together perfectly!"

And, when I'm finished, I wonder how I could have ever submitted that horrible earlier draft for anyone to read. And I float up on the clouds with my new rock-star version of my book...until the next round of revisions. Which is really the important thing to keep in mind.

If you embrace the potential in each level of revision, your book will continue evolving and growing into a better, stronger version of itself.

That's one of the key things I would recommend to other writers. Consider revisions as an opportunity to grow your skill as a writer. At every step along the way, I was thrilled that other people in the industry were willing to invest in me and this project.

Sure, it was challenging at times to think about cutting a whole point of view or a few characters, but I was - and still am - thankful for the professional input of my agent and editor.

Listen to all the suggestions, sit with them, and then try them out! You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you hang on to "that scene" and aren't willing to risk something different, you may never discover how much better your work can actually be.

Yes, it can feel depressing to hit the delete button on that lovely chapter you thought was so brilliant. But then there's room for whatever else you want to make up next. That's the wonderful thing about being a writer. There's no scarcity of creativity.

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

I was that girl who sat at the lunch table with her nose buried in a book. My report cards inevitably had the halfhearted scolding from teachers who wrote: "Marissa has been reading novels in class."

I would read into the wee hours, the familiar scene of flashlight-under-the-covers enacted nightly at home. If I was being punished, my parents would sometimes confiscate the book I was reading at the time. (Oh, torture!) I read all manner of books when I was young - and still do - but fantasy remains one of my favorite genres.

For some reason, I had an odd class schedule in middle school, which meant that I spent my study hall alone in the school library, accompanied only by the elderly nun who cataloged books for the students. I never did any schoolwork during this period. I can still see the particular spot in the library where the mythology and folklore books were stacked, and I worked my way through them one by one. Classic fairy tales. Greek mythology. Fables. I devoured them all.

So when I stumbled across my first fantasy novels, I recognized the echoes of fairyland at once. I read Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams (DAW Books, 1985) many times over in that seventh grade cafeteria. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein (Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955) captivated me so much so that I wore an old keyring on a chain around my neck for most of the school year. Then I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin. Robert Jordan. George R.R. Martin.

I love the feeling of getting lost in a good book, and I think the extensive worldbuilding in good fantasy literature makes space for this especially well. When I began to write my own story (fantasy, of course), I discovered the lovely surprise that authors get to escape to their own created worlds as well - something that my twelve-year-old self would have approved of very much.

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

I've had to give this some serious thought. One of the wonderful things about the slew of books, blogs, and articles about the publishing process is that they provide a wealth of information that can help new authors. And this is one of the most overwhelming things as well.

The internet's bottomless history of publishing advice is now at my fingertips, and I find myself with a growing to do list of everything a debut author "should" do to promote her book. And, to tell the truth, I'm not that convinced about the worthwhile-ness of much of it.

Marissa makes a note.
Oh, believe me, I want to market my book (please buy it!), and I'm willing to invest time in things I think will pay off. But I've had to learn to prioritize.

My agent gave me some great advice early on. She told me to start a blog...if I had a niche I could fill. If not, she said in so many words, then let the blogging thing go.

This is how I've approached many of the things on my to do list. Can I do this item well? Will it pay off for me? If not? I just let it go. I've mainly focused on real-life relationships.

Through the Apocalypsies, a group of 2012 debut authors, I've come to know several other authors in the Pacific Northwest. We meet monthly for coffee, mutual support, and to brainstorm group panels or appearances we can do together. This is an exponentially better way for me to participate in author events, besides the fact that we have a great time together.

I make space for school visits and look for opportunities to build connections to my local independent bookstores and libraries.

I've let go of the idea of book-related swag and a book trailer.

I still hold out hope for revamping my website, but I know this won't happen before my book comes out.

It's all a process - and a fluid one at that - and I would encourage debut authors to think strategically about their marketing plan, prioritize realistically given the amount of hours they have to put toward it, and to give themselves grace to do their best and enjoy the process - even if they don't check every box on their to-do list.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Guest Post: Don Tate on It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw

By Don Tate
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

About ten years ago, I spoke on a panel at the Texas Book Festival. During a Q&A session, someone asked a question which resulted in an answer wherein I revealed a desire to write.

But me? Write a book? For someone’s child?

Not with my bad use of English and twisted grammar. No way.

Days following that panel, I received an email from my friend, author Dianna Hutts Aston. She wanted to know if I’d ever heard of African-American “outsider” artist Bill Traylor.

I hadn’t, so she mailed a newspaper article to me about the artist. The photograph of Bill intrigued me. This well-worn, elderly Black man, sitting on a crate with a board laid across his lap, drawing pictures. I felt an immediate kindred spirit with this man.



I wanted to give writing a try, but my confidence was low. “Maybe you could write the story, Dianna, and I’ll illustrate it.” I wanted to say.

Visit Dianna Hutts Aston
But before I could say anything, Dianna sent another email. She said: “Don, this is not my story to write. It’s yours.”

I pinned the article to a bulletin board above my drawing table where the photo of Bill seemed to stare me down, goading me to tell his story. I ignored Bill for several years.

When I finally found the confidence to write I began with a graphic, I drew a timeline. At the beginning and end, I noted Bill’s birth and death dates. Then I plotted the events of his life based upon initial internet research. That’s where the challenges in telling Bill’s story began.

Bill Traylor was born a slave. He was property, no different in the eyes of his owners than a horse or a plow. Slave owners didn’t always keep records of their human property, so dates of the events of Bill’s life varied from source to source.

Frustrating. How was I going to write a nonfiction biography about a man whose birth date I couldn’t even confirm? I decided not to let that be an obstacle. I plotted the varying dates on the timeline, noting the source. I’d nail down exact dates later.



The timeline proved a great visual tool. I could see Bill’s life laid out in front of me. But it also revealed more problems. I had way too much information to present in a children’s picture book. What to leave out, what to include? Should I include that he possibly worked as a flag man (whatever that was)? Should I include some of the more nefarious reasons given for his leaving the farm?

And what about the 22 children he is said to have fathered over the course of his life? Should I include them, too?

The timeline also revealed holes in Bill’s life. Much was written about the four years he spent drawing pictures on the sidewalk of Monroe Avenue in downtown Montgomery. But not much was known about the other 80 years of his life.

That was a huge hole! Again I grew frustrated. But then I realized, all I had to do was study Bill’s art. His drawings serve as a visual journal of his life on the farm and on the streets of Montgomery.



Bill’s drawings of dogs, snakes, cats, chickens and mules demonstrate his love of animals. Another drawing is of a lively-speaking preacher with arms outstretched toward worshipers gathered in a circle. A simple, yet powerful drawing that provides more detail about his life on the farm.

Using Bill’s drawings as a guide, I began to put his story together.

After several rewrites and about 29 revisions over the course of a summer, I submitted my manuscript to Lee & Low Books New Voices Award contest. I won the honor award. I was thrilled, but there was no contract offer at that time.

It took two more years and several more rounds of revisions before It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw was acquired.

My editor asked great questions that made me think beyond the chronological details of Bill’s life. She encouraged me to explore the question as to why Bill Traylor began to draw. She offered many suggestions, always leaving the final decision to me.

One of the happiest moments of my career was when she acquired that manuscript.

During school visits lately, I’ve been speaking a lot about It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. The kids want to know why I didn’t illustrate the book and how it felt to have someone else illustrate the story. Great questions.

The answer, however, would require a separate blog post. And, just so happens, I wrote one.

Honestly, I love that R. Gregory Christie created the art for this book. I’m one of Greg’s biggest fans. Greg’s wonderful art is perfect for this project. When I look at the art for this book, I and can’t help but smile. Greg’s naive folk art style nods towards Bill Traylor’s own art style. And what author would complain about having a three-time Coretta Scott King award recipient illustrate their book?

Learn about R. Gregory Christie

I love writing just as much as I love illustrating, and I’m currently working on several other books. I will illustrate some of them, but I have my fingers crossed for others I hope will consider illustrating my words. I’m versatile like that.

For aspiring authors, my advice probably sounds cliché, but it’s true: Read a lot; write a lot; and revise, revise, revise. And pray. And grumble to your friends when you need to.

More about Don Tate

Just don’t give up because it won’t happen overnight.

As an author, mine was eight-year journey from conception to publication.

Cynsational Notes

Trekking Down the Jes' Happened Timeline by Debbie Gonzales from Simple Saturday. See activity guide and more guides by Debbie. See also Jes' a Hit: an interview with Don Tate from The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story.

Attention Central Texans! Don take will launch It Jes' Happened at noon April 9 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information! Note: Greg Leitich Smith will speak, in conjunction with Austin SCBWI, on "Digging Deep"  at 10 a.m. that same day at BookPeople.



Friday, May 04, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Ongoing Problem of Race in Young Adult Literature by Jen Doll from The Atlantic Wire. Peek: "Coe Booth...hated reading until she discovered Judy Blume. 'Those made me into a reader,' she said, 'because the books we were forced to read that had black people in them, I didn’t relate to them. As a little black girl growing up in the Bronx, I had no connection to books about sharecroppers or those books that took place in the ‘50s.'" Note: while I worship Walter Dean Myers on bended knee, I'm not sure he's completely on mark about the Texas market. As a Austin based writer who travels regularly, I've noticed a lot of state-wide enthusiasm for diverse youth literature, especially with regard to books featuring Mexican or Mexican-American characters and themes.

What Makes a Good YA Dystopia Novel? by April Spisak from The Horn Book. Peek: "Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure."

Fourth Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature by Tarie from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind. Peek: "...now open for submissions from Arab or international publishing houses that publish Arabic-language books for children ages 0-14."

Some Book: Celebrating 60 Years of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims from The New York Times. Peek: "During his long career he wrote about everything from the predictability of radio preachers to the emotional fallout from nuclear dread, but he meditated upon farm animals and Maine life with particular affection." Source: Lupe Ruiz-Flores.

Indiana School Library Devastated by Tornado Still Needs Help by Lauren Barack from School Library Journal. Peek: "After the baseball-sized hail subsided, Riggs and her students-none of whom were injured-picked their way out of the rubble to find their library destroyed and all of the books gone."

Congratulations to the Crystal Kite Award winners from SCBWI. Special cheers to Lena Coakley, Cynsations Canada reporter, whose fantasy novel Witchlanders (Atheneum) was the Americas winner, to Austin's Patrice Barton, whose picture book Mine! (Random House) was the Texas/Oklahoma winner, and Jo Knowles, whose realistic novel, Pearl (Henry Holt) was the New England winner.

History in Fiction: Boom or Bust? by Michael Cart from Booklist. Peek: "...historical adventures, historical fantasy, historical science fiction (think alternative histories), and even future history. Perhaps it is because of these blender-benders that the straight old-fashioned historical novel has fallen on evil times. Or has it?"

Race & YA: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors! from Sarah Ockler. Peek: "Which came first—the chicken, the egg, or the egg white omelet—I don’t know. But the discussion glosses over an obvious gap: white authors." See also Um, Hello God? Is This Thing On? Faith and YA Literature by Tanita Davis from Finding Wonderland.

Why Go to the London Book Fair 2012? by Lucy Coats from Scribble City Central. Peek: "The seminar I got most of, though, was the one Bali Rai organised.  He had arranged for a panel of teenagers from two London schools to come and talk to us about what they wanted to see in a novel." Note: includes lengthy teen comments.

Upping Your Level of Professionalism by Jennifer Shaw Wolf from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "...when I write it’s not just about me...anymore. I have an agent who’s waiting to sell my next book. I have an editor who has to answer to a marketing department and a slew of other people about how my book is going to make the company money."

The Edgar Award winners were Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic)(children's) and The Silence of Murder by Dandi Daley Mackall (Knopf)(YA). 

No Joke! Humor and Culture in Middle Grade Books by Uma Krishnaswami from The Horn Book. Peek: "In generous hands, humor can appear to fix the things that need fixing in the world. And then it can turn around and wink at you, the reader, as if you’re complicit in the manufacture of the fiction."

Sharjah IBBY Fund from Raab Associates. Peek: "The Fund aims primarily to provide support for children whose lives have been disrupted through war, civil disorder or natural disasters in the region of Central Asia and North Africa through implementing reading-related projects."

Biblio.com: offers shopping from independent bookstores around the world, often with free shipping. Source: Teaching Authors.

M.T. Anderson: Pioneer of Smart YA Fiction by Adam Ragusea from 90.9 wbur, Boston's NPR Station. Peek: "...teens deserve books that respect the complexity of their inner lives."

Samantha Clark and Lillian Pluta are the winners of the Houston SCBWI Joan Lowery Nixon Award. The prize is a year-long mentorship/critique program with award-winning and bestselling author Kathi Appelt.

Headlines and Hooklines: Writing a Press Release by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "Reporters for media outlets love them because they provide content. You, as a writer, should love press releases because they tell the audience exactly what you want them to know."

Finalists 2012 Locus Awards from the Locus Science Fiction Foundation via SF Signal. Cheers to Planesrunner by Ian McDonald (Pyr); Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Viking); Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk); The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (Feiwel and Friends) and Goliath by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK). Source: Gwenda Bond.

Writing About Kissing from Malinda Lo. Peek: "I’ve been thinking about fictional kissing for a while now because, let’s face it: I’m a young adult author, and all of my books have fictional kissing in them."

Middle Grade Mysteries by Katrina Hedeen from The Horn Book. Peek: "The following novels show that puzzles can be solved by detectives both seasoned and green. These four sleuth stories — action-packed, suspenseful, and sometimes goofy — will lure in mystery-lovers."

Sometimes You Have to Make Yourself Do It by Kristina Springer from Author2Author. Peek: "This is one of those times where even though I really really really don't want to do something, I'm going to do it. I have to."

Agent Spotlight: Susan Hawk from Literary Rambles. Peek: "Children’s picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult, fiction and non-fiction." Note: formerly of marketing at Henry Holt and Penguin as well as editorial at Penguin.

This Post is for the Ones You Love from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: "Congratulations on having the fabulous good fortune of living with a writer-type. There are many great things about being involved with a writer, among them..."

Once Upon a Time in San Miguel de Allende: A Three-Day Intensive Children’s Writers Workshop, taught by children's author Dianna Hutts Aston. Session one will be Oct. 12 to Oct. 15. Session two will be Oct. 26 to Oct. 29. Peek:...an intimate, intensive...writers workshop for aspiring writers of picture books – limited to four students per session – who want to develop a picture book concept, hone their manuscripts, and learn about the publication process."

Meet Krista Vitola, Assistant Editor, Delacorte Press and Ariel Richardson, Editorial Assistant, Chronicle Books by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes.

Cynsational Blogger Tip: Simplify/limit your text colors. Usually one color for the text and another color for links is sufficient. Black on a white background is the easiest to read, but you may want to pick another dark color and light background. Try to resist the temptation of adding too many more text colors (it's hard on the eye)--maybe pick one if you want to really highlight something special like a giveaway.

Agent Interviews with Andrea Cascardi (Transatlantic), Ginger Knowlton (Curtis Brown), Marie Lamba (Jennifer DeChiara) and Jeff Ourvan (Jennifer Lyons) from MiG Writers.

More? Don't miss the Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup from Jen Robinson's Book Page and YA releases in stores next week with giveaway of Tighter by Adele Griffin from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing,

Cynsational Giveaways

Joanne on the Power of Details in Writing
Enter for a chance to win a picture book critique or first-chapter critique for a middle grade novel (ages 8 to 12) by Joanne Rocklin, emphasizing "sparkly details."

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Joanne Rocklin critique" in the subject line. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: 11:59 CST May 14. Note: please indicate if you're entering for a critique/book or both.

And enter to win one of three copies of The Fives Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin (Abrams, 2012).

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook" in the subject line. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: 11:59 CST May 14. Note: please indicate if you're entering for a critique/book or both.



Librarians, enter to win one of three sets of five signed Diabolical bookmarks and a Tantalize series button! Please indicate your affiliation (the specific school(s), public library/system) in your entry. 

YA readers! I'm also happy to send up to five individual signed bookmarks!

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Diabolical" in the subject line. (If you're on LiveJournal, I'm also taking entries via comment at the Cynsations LJ.) Author-sponsored. Eligibility: international. Deadline: midnight CST May 14.


Last call! Enter to win a giveaway package celebrating The Veil by Cory Putnam Oakes (Octane, 2011). The giveaway package includes: a signed copy of The Veil; a Cable Car tin full of Ghirardelli chocolates; a tin of illy coffee (medium roast); a "Caffeine Gives Me Annorasi Powers" mug (extra large, to hold extra caffeine for extra powers); and "I *HEART* Luc" stickers. Note: Cory says: "Ghirardelli Square and caffeine are both very important in The Veil."

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address.Or email Cynthia directly with "The Veil" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST May 7.

The winner of a signed, personalized copy of Puzzled by Pink by Sarah Frances Hardy (Viking, 2012) was Cathy in Massachusetts. Learn more about the book from Sarah.

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally

Happy Star Wars Day! I've been reviewing copy edits on my new novel, brainstorming a title for my new series, and working on student manuscripts.

I'm also celebrating the 10th anniversary of Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen (HarperCollins, 2002)(see cover art above). This early reader chapter book is especially dear to me because it was dedicated to my grandparents and was in part inspired by the years I lived in Chicago. It remains one of previous few books that depicts urban Indian characters.

The week's highlight was an Austin area young writers' event...


Thank you to Jodi and everyone at Pflugerville (Texas) ISD for hosting me and Greg at the Write Stuff! event at Kelly Lane Middle School. It was terrific, speaking to K-5 writers, families, and faculty. Write on! Note: Varian Johnson led a workshop for secondary students.

Look for me on page 93 of the ninth edition of Literature for Today's Young Adults by Alleen Nilsen, James Blasingame, Don Nilsen, and Kenneth L. Donelson (Pearson, 2012). Peek: "

Reminder: Candlewick Press offers free downloads of two of my short stories ("Haunted Love" and "Cat Calls") from all major e-retailers. Any other "free" downloads of my work are illegal copyright infringements, which (besides stealing) reduce the odds of my publishing future books.

Please alert me if you run across any, and I'll sic my publisher and/or literary agency legal team on them.

On a budget? No worries, you can read all of my books for free by checking them out at the library! If they're not on the shelf, politely request that the librarian get copies for you on loan. You can check out all kinds of awesome stuff for free from the library.

And regardless, be careful of free download sites. A lot of them promise a text but are simply lures to deliver viruses to your computer. Yikes!

Finally, I want to say that I enjoyed this young-reader video adaptation of my debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001):



Personal Links
From Greg Leitich Smith:
About Greg Leitich Smith
  • Dinosaurs & Time Travel! Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith by Katy Manck from BookYALove. Peek: "This mile-a-minute adventure story includes dromaeosaur babies and bow-hunting, toothed prehistoric birds and T. Rexes and 40-foot-long crocodilians among the adventures encountered by four young teens on a time-traveling mission."
  • Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith from Deena at deenaml's LJ. Peek: "Young dinosaur fans will enjoy this fast-paced MG novel full of Cretaceous creatures and facts..."
  • Tweeps! Greg has joined the collective. Follow @GLeitichSmith.
Cynsational Events

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear at A Festival of Authors, in celebration of 100 Years of School Libraries in Austin, which will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 12 at Reagan High School in Northeast Austin.


Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear June 30 at Bastop Public Library in Bastrop, Texas.

Interested in taking a class with Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith this summer?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Guest Post & Critique/Book Giveaway: Joanne Rocklin on the Power of the Detail: from Diamond to Tears of Joy

By Joanne Rocklin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

As I worked in my basement office on my new middle grade novel, The Fives Lives of Our Cat Zook (Abrams, 2012)(sample chapter), my hair was a mass of sticky cowlicks, paper was strewn on tables and floor, and the air smelled of coffee, sweat and dog.

Upstairs, I am an obsessively tidy housekeeper, but downstairs my office is a mess, as are my drafts, and, okay, my person. Sort of like the Superego and its Id.

When I first began, I had a vague idea for a story about a girl and her brother and the stories the girl tells about their sick cat’s “other lives.” I was aiming for laughter and tears in one book, as I always do. That’s all I knew at the beginning.

Many months and many words later, I stared at my final draft and a familiar feeling came over me. Lo and behold, a complete and sensible story had appeared on my computer. Out of nowhere! Or from a place entirely outside my cluttered office and messy imagination, it seemed. It was the same astonished, rather embarrassed response I usually have when I finish a novel. How did I write that?

I am often asked a similar question when I emerge from my basement to greet the real world, i.e. Where do you get your ideas?

I knew I’d better come up with some honest, helpful answers because, after all, my book is about stories. And not only that, my plucky character Oona, prone to sharing interesting theories about fibbing (My Rainbow Whopper Theory) and relationships (My Hope of the World Theory) and longings (My Wishing Theory), had ended her story with a gift to the reader, her eight-point Theory of Story-Making.

Also by Joanne (Abrams, 2011)
I happen to believe strongly that writing is the same process for everyone, old or young, published or unpublished. And every time I begin another book, I have to remind myself how to do it. So before I begin my next project, I will consult Oona’s eight-point Theory. I now realize it contains everything that’s important to me about the writing process, especially Points 3, 4, and 5.

Point 3: You make a story yours by taking pieces of your world and putting them in your story to make a whole other world. These pieces are called details.

Point 4: A story doesn’t have to be true, but it does have to be real. That makes it truly a story. So even if it’s a fantasy, try to make the whopper-getter (the reader or listener) believe it could really happen. That’s where details help.

Point 5: The more you tell or write your story, the more you want to add some details to it. That’s okay. Each time you complete a new version of your story, that’s called a draft. Details are like jigsaw puzzle pieces, helping your drafts become whole.

By the way, the underlining is mine, not Oona’s. Obviously, for both of us, it’s all about the details. Details are more important than character, plot, and theme, or setting, it seems to me.

Actually, it is the details that create character, plot, theme and setting. They are the tiny atoms contained in all of these, and the energy that propels the story.

Perhaps the true question to be asked is, “Where do you get your dreams?”

For me, beginning a story is like plunging into a messy “waking dream” of disconnected details. My sleeping dreams are also filled with various flotsam and jetsam. Some of the details of both kinds of dreaming come from my “real life.” Other details arrive seemingly from nowhere, or they float up from a deep, dark place filled with memories, other people’s stories, hidden longings. And in both cases, a part of my brain is working furiously to make sense of it all.

Here’s what happened in The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook.


On the very first page of my very first draft, I began with a description of Zook, using specific details to make my writing realistic and interesting: Zook was howling his heart out in an alley in back of a pizzeria, where flowers once grew in the now empty, blue pots, when the children’s father was alive. This unusual cat had extra toes on each paw. His eyes were blue, like old, faded jeans. He had black gums and shaky teeth and a BB gun pellet lodged under his skin. A tag on his collar had a diamond on it, which the kids hoped they could cash in for gobs of money, until, sadly, they found out it was a fake.

Details, just details. Just me noodling around, using as many details I could think of to get my story going, not worrying about where the details came from, or where they would lead. I grabbed onto more details as I wrote my way through successive drafts. But—and this is the key—most of those random details miraculously joined up to create important nuggets or hints of character, plot, theme or setting.

Soon to be an ebook & app
A cat’s howl echoed the joy and sadness of a guitar-player’s blues tune, which, in turn, reminded Oona of life’s bittersweet moments.

Empty, blue pots brought memories of a happier time , and led to an urban gardening project which healed a relationship.

Extra toes inspired a tale of a kingdom saved.

A cat’s blue eyes reflected Elvis’s blue suede shoes, then a new name and a new life.

A BB gun pellet became the sadness we can’t wish away.

And a diamond Wishing Object brought tears of joy, “as beautiful as diamonds.”

Of course, you will have to read the whole book to fully understand how all the details completed my story, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Photo by Gerry Nelson
Patricia Hampl, in one of the best essays on writing I have ever read, “The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination”, writes that “Life is not a fixed star, not a unity. It makes sense that stories, for all their apparent seamlessness, should be formed of smashed, discarded bits.”

Of course Mark Twain also said that the difference between real life and fiction is that “fiction has to make sense!” And the difference between dreaming and writing, too, is that your writing has to make sense.

I try mightily to make sense of my night dreams while sleeping. I always fail, and frankly, don’t care by the light of day. I have better luck with the waking dreams reflected by my rough drafts.

That’s because I really love rewriting. I hone my drafts as best as I can with my knowledge of craft: narrative and character arcs, tension and cliff-hangers, pacing and balance, etc., etc.

But it’s the “smashed, discarded bits” that I begin with and hold onto, draft after messy draft, as I scribble away in my messy basement. I’ve developed a crazy love for that mess, realizing how important it is. And a crazy faith that everything will make sense, the details bumping into one another and then, finally, finally interlocking, to solve the puzzle of my story.

Cynsational Notes

Enter for a chance to win a picture book critique or first-chapter critique for a middle grade novel (ages 8 to 12) by Joanne Rocklin, emphasizing "sparkly details." 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. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Joanne Rocklin critique" in the subject line. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: 11:59 CST May 14. Note: please indicate if you're entering for a critique/book or both.

And enter to win one of three copies of The Fives Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin (Abrams, 2012). 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. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook" in the subject line. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: 11:59 CST May 14. Note: please indicate if you're entering for a critique/book or both.



Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Solving the Mystery of the Perfect Plot

Flux, 2012
By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Nancy Drew was my first plotting teacher. Kidnapped, bound, gagged, trapped in the dark hull of a ship and sailing into unknown peril. Would Ned rescue her? Would Nancy escape on her own? Or would she perish in some terrible, torturous way?

Fascinated and worried, I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough to find out what happened next.

Plot is all about “what happens next.” The mystery series I read voraciously as a child thrilled with cliffhangers and dramatic climaxes. I loved mysteries so much that, at age 14, I wrote on a writing school application that my goal was to have a mystery series of my own someday. The writing school rejected me for being too young, but two decades later, I was the author of my own mid-grade mystery series.

In mystery novels clues (plot points) are placed along the way to make readers desperate to keep turning pages to reach The End. Since I cut my writing teeth on juvenile series books, plotting is one of my favorite parts of writing.

If Nancy were solving “The Mystery of the Perfect Plot,” she’d start off by interrogating the suspects—the characters.

#1. Great characters are the heart of good plotting.

Characters and plot are a marriage; each plot-turn should be motivated by what your characters wants. Don’t only plot by listing an outline of events. Plot your characters’ inner journeys, too; give even minor characters motivation—something they want—to enhance plotting.

For instance, using Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) as an example, the story isn’t simply about 24 kids battling to the death. The heart of the story is about Katniss as she fights to survive and save the people she loves. Her emotional journey (inner plot) is why readers love this trilogy.

#2. Open your story with a WOW!

Ask yourself what moment changes everything then jump-start your book into a scene that’s active, compelling, and foreshadows characters’ inner and outer journeys. Study the opening pages of your favorite books looking for character details, setting and motivation.

#3. Shove your characters off a cliff.

I love to shock, tease and tantalize readers with cliffhangers. It doesn’t have to be a dangerous situation: He shoved a gun into her face!. It can simply be a question: “So which one of my friends did you sleep with?” Or a realization like this chapter ending from my book Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery (Flux, 2012): "And I know with certainty this curl was cut from a dead body." Keep those pages turning by sparking curiosity with cliffhangers.

#4. If your middle sags, try liposuction.

Okay, confession here. I always get stuck in the middle of a book. Once, when I was writing a mid-grade about a mermaid, I got stuck in the middle and told my writing group I was going to pull the plug on the ocean so characters drain away; end of story. But I didn’t give up and was proud of the finished book.

When plotting middles, expect a moment of writing crisis. But don’t panic. Come back later to fix plot problems in the rewriting stage. Suck up your anxiety and keep writing.

#5. Reaching a satisfying climax.

I like books to have a cyclical feeling to them. My Dead Girl Walking trilogy (Flux, 2008-2010) opens with my directionally-challenged heroine going to a party. In the final book, the last scene finds her at a similar party, but she’s gone through a journey that has changed who she is outwardly and emotionally.

Know what your characters want and reflect this motivation in the climax. If your character doesn’t get what she wants, she needs to have learned something from the journey. Your ending should have the profound feeling of a new beginning; resolute yet hopeful.

In the plotting school of Nancy Drew, endings come with rewards like an old clock, jewels and praise. Writers seldom receive gifts of jewels and old clocks, but praise (fan letters) from readers is priceless. May your plots lead you into the hearts of readers and onto the shelves of bookstores.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Linda's new release, Buried (The Goth Girl Mysteries #1)(Flux, 2012). See excerpt and readers guide.

Linda in the library


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

New Voice: J. Anderson Coats on The Wicked and The Just

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

J. Anderson Coats is the first-time author of The Wicked and The Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). From the promotional copy:


1293. North Wales. Ten years into English rule.

Cecily would give anything to leave Caernarvon and go home. Gwenhwyfar would give anything to see all the English leave.

Neither one is going to get her wish.

Behind the city walls, English burgesses govern with impunity. Outside the walls, the Welsh are confined by custom and bear the burden of taxation, and the burgesses plan to keep it that way.

Cecily can’t be bothered with boring things like the steep new tax or the military draft that requires Welshmen to serve in the king’s army overseas. She has her hands full trying to fit in with the town’s privileged elite, and they don’t want company.

Gwenhwyfar can’t avoid these things. She counts herself lucky to get through one more day, and service in Cecily’s house is just salt in the wound.

But the Welsh are not as conquered as they seem, and the suffering in the countryside is rapidly turning to discontent. The murmurs of revolt may be Gwenhwyfar’s only hope for survival – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.

As a writer of historical fiction, what drew you first – character, concept or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

File tub
The past is real. It’s as real as the bagel I ate for breakfast and the pile of bills on the dresser.

Historical fiction, when done well, does not present the past as a stage or a setting.

Historical fiction, when done well, makes the past feel lived.

The Wicked and The Just is set in 1293-1294 in Caernarvon, a walled town in north Wales, about ten years after the fall of native government and the imposition of English rule.

At this time, the English Crown is doing everything it can to keep Wales in line. One step it takes is building the massive, impressive castles that still stand today – the infamous “Ring of Steel” that curves around north Wales like a crescent.

But another thing the Crown is doing is enticing English settlers to move into the walled towns attached to the Ring of Steel castles, and in return for living in what is essentially a demilitarized zone, they receive tons of privileges and tax breaks – at the expense of the Welsh, who are relocated and saddled with the tax burden.

One of my protagonists is an English girl who comes with her father to settle, the other is a Welsh girl whose family lost everything when the Welsh princes were defeated. I wanted to explore the lived experiences of that first generation following the fall of native government – settler English and native Welsh alike – during a dynamic period in Welsh history.

For the English settlers, Caernarvon is a pretty good deal. Show up, pay your rent, defend the province for the king, and in return, you don’t have to fight in the king’s army at home or abroad and you don’t pay taxes. For the middle ages, that’s almost unheard-of.

medieval toilet
For the Welsh, it’s very unpleasant. Until recently, you’ve been governed by your own native princes; for good or ill, at least they were yours. Now you’re nominally governed by the king of England, but he really doesn’t care much about Wales. He cares what the king of France is up to, so he assigns a bunch of governors to run Wales on his behalf.

So yeah, you can probably guess what happened very quickly. This particular moment, 1293-1294, caught my attention, as conditions in the region steadily grew from bad to worse.

So that’s my backdrop. Ethnic strife, rampant corruption, famine and a region in transition. Now I had to bring in some characters that were at once true to that world, yet relate-able to a modern audience.

This was not easy. Medieval people did and believed some weird stuff. A writer of medieval historical fiction has to normalize beliefs that that women are property, animal cruelty is funny, and you can determine how sick people are by tasting their pee.

It’s one thing to understand a belief that it’s okay to beat your servants. It’s another to accept that it happened. But it’s quite another to write it in such a way that other people – and young people in particular – understand and accept it in the context you present.

In other words, readers have to understand that a behavior is not okay where they are, but in this world it’s perfectly normal, and that’s okay.

It’s not fair to judge the past based on our modern standards, but it’s perilously easy to do.

On the other hand, something I try to present in my fiction is how much in common we have with people in the past. That’s not to say that we are like them; as I mentioned, they believed and did some weird things. But then again, so do we.

Medieval people believed God put people on a certain rung of the social ladder and it was going against God’s will to try to change that. We think nothing of getting in a silver tube fifty feet long and letting it take us 30,000 feet in the air, held up by nothing but other air.

Sure, the past is filled with people who believed in the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden and foot-binding and sati, but it was also lived by people who loved their children and made sacrifices for their families and cared for sick pets and made solid lifetime friendships.

We share a lot with historical people, and that means the past can be made relate-able.

You just have to approach it in a certain way. This is where the real work of historical fiction takes place.

It’s dishonest to change the past to suit what we think it should have been like, but since they are like us in so many ways, we can access historical people through their humanity. It’s a window into their world. It lets us begin to understand how they could believe and do the weird stuff they did. And it’s very often a wild, interesting and worthwhile ride.

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