Thursday, June 07, 2012

New Voice: Lynda Mullaly Hunt on One for the Murphys

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the first-time author of One for the Murphys (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

In the wake of heart-breaking betrayal, Carley Connors is thrust into foster care and left on the steps of the Murphys, a happy, bustling family.

Carley has thick walls and isn’t rattled easily, but this is a world she just doesn’t understand. A world that frightens her.

So, she resists this side of life she’d believed did not exist with dinners around a table and a “zip your jacket, here’s your lunch” kind of mom.

However, with the help of her Broadway-obsessed and unpredictable friend, Toni, the Murphys do the impossible in showing Carley what it feels like to belong somewhere. But when her mother wants her back, will she lose the only family that she has ever known?

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

Oh boy. The call.

When I signed with agent Erin Murphy, she warned me that a literary novel could be a tough sell in this market. I was prepared for anything. After revisions, we sent it to about 10 editors. There was interest from one publisher but it fell through because, 'It wouldn't be a break out success.'¨

After about six rejections came in, all saying roughly the same thing, I suggested to Erin that I revise. Her response was confident and calm (not like me). "No. Not yet."

View from Lynda's window.
While attending ALA in Boston, I met up with Erin and another agent from EMLA, Joan Paquette, at the "Tweet Up,¨ a casual mingling session for 150 writing professionals/tweeters.

I was causing harmless mischief by dressing Erin up as a Sox fan and trying to coax her into staying longer than she should so we could talk to an editor that had my manuscript on her desk. (Erin hesitated because she didn't want to run late for another appointment. So responsible, that Erin.)

"C'mon, Murphy¨ I'd coaxed. "Two minutes. It'll be fun!" I had no idea.

So, Erin and I were having a rather pleasant conversation with editor A, when a tall, graceful woman came through the crowd and hugged Erin. Erin introduced the woman to me as Nancy Paulsen, a name I recognized.

They chatted for a bit and Nancy said something about what she was looking for in a manuscript.

Erin replied by pitching my novel and then asking, "May I send it to you on Monday?"

Nancy agreed and they took out their Blackberries and made notes.

I couldn't believe it. Really? Did I just witness that?

Weeks later, Erin e-mailed me to say that Nancy had contacted her about my manuscript; they had scheduled a phone call for the following day. Erin warned me, however, that there probably wouldn't be an offer from Nancy, but a request for revisions. That sounded good to me!

The next day, I was sitting at my desk with my cell, when the ringtone I'd set for Erin started to play "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," by Stevie Wonder.

I answered.

Erin: "Now, what song is it that you told me plays when I call your phone?¨

"Signed, Sealed, Delivered?¨ (I'm still completely clueless here.)

"Well that's perfect, because we have an offer on the table from Penguin.¨

Okay. Imagine bottle rockets launching into the air. Imagine a drag racer with no parachute. Imagine me in my office.

I reacted even before it had sunk in. This was good old fashioned shock. And I had a whole lack of eloquence thing going there, too. "Oh my God! Really? Oh my God. Really? Oh my God! Really?¨

So, I finally calmed down and thanked Erin for all she'd done. For her faith in me and in my book. For making a dream come true. And we both got a little weepy.

At the end of my life, when MTV counts down my ten best moments, this will be there.

Lynda's desktop.
Now, I'd always imagined how cool I would be telling my family about this kind of success. Clever. Calm. Collected. Suave, even--how I'd smoothly slip it in to conversation.

Erm--not so much. My body hasn't moved like that since I ran hurdles in the 10th grade. I went leaping and screaming into the kitchen, my voice blaring and choking at the same time. "The Murphys sold! Oh my God! It sold! The Murphys sold!"

My husband, who was in the kitchen, spun around and I could hear my daughter running down the hallway upstairs. We jumped around in chaotic happiness.

My son had been playing with the kids next door, so the three of us threw open the front door on that bright March day and ran next door in our stocking feet to tell him.

I am one blessed woman, let me tell you. I have a super-supportive family and network of friends.

So, Erin Murphy is my agent. And Nancy Paulsen is my publisher/editor.

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

We all have different facets of ourselves. Some people refer to it as wearing different hats. Well, three pieces of myself--author, teacher, and former child--came together like a braid to create One for the Murphys. If one had not existed, it could not have held together.

Truthfully, there is a lot of the "teen me" in Carley, my main character. She is self-protected, spirited, and suspicious of love. She's sad and confused, knowing that there are things in the world that she will never have. Not the kinds of things that don't matter--the things that do. And she is keenly aware of the difference.

Thing is, things just were; I never analyzed myself, especially at a time when these issues were not discussed in school, easily found in books, on television, and in movies. Although, I remember seeing a movie called, "A Girl Named Sooner" and being floored by it. I understood her. She even looked like me. I watched for years for it to come on television again. It never did.

One thing that puzzled me, though, were my cousins who seemed to be similar to me but were better versions. Their families bustling and happy. Comparing myself to them, I made assumptions about myself that turned out to be incorrect. (Like I wasn't as smart as them or was somehow "less than.")

Thing is, I felt these things but couldn't label them. That's the thing with kids sometimes--they know how they feel but are sometimes unable to label it. With maturity and the ability to put words to it, it becomes something that is easier to understand, I think. However, with that understanding comes a bucketful of other things, not all good.

I was told I could never have a happy life. I was told that I wasn't smart enough. I resisted believing any of it. I was encouraged to choose a life I'm glad that I didn't choose.

Being told I couldn't have "that kind of life" only made me want it more, and so I built that future, tiny piece upon tiny piece. Every time a part of me whispered that it couldn't possibly work out, I told it to shut up and replaced it with something else like a song with the kinds of lyrics I needed to hear. Over and over I would listen. Over and over.

Lynda as a baby.
I had the wisdom to be happy for the things I did have, and, in many ways, I really was an over-the-top-fortunate child. I focused on being grateful.

I don't know why. I can't take credit for it. A blessing from God, I suppose. Like the way some people can just play the piano with no training. I just knew. Had an understanding. A wisdom about the world from a young age.

So, I was this funny mix of observant, laser-focus, long-term thinking, and yet I stayed under the radar, rarely letting adults know what I was capable of and was skeptical of love.

Well, except for my big brother, Ricky; I always knew he loved me. Always.

That must have been enough.

Flash forward. I am a graduate of the U. Conn School of Education. I started off bumpy but ended up with impressive recommendation letters from student teaching and a near-perfect average by the time I graduate with a masters. I am teaching third grade in a small town in Connecticut.

And. I. Just. Love. It.

I was good with the kids that were considered trouble-makers. I understood them. When their behaviors made no sense to other adults, I knew their undercurrents. I also understood that every kid has a currency; you just have to figure out what it is. With many of those "troublesome" kids, their wish was simply to be seen and heard.

Bagel
So, for work completed or good behavior, I would give rewards of my time. One-on-one lunches. Chess after school. Basketball games. Helping me with bulletin boards. It depended on the child.

Meanwhile, I was getting an education in why I was the way I was when I was young. I was developing an understanding for the injustice of a lot of it through the eyes of a woman that would become a person who held up a mirror and demanded I look into it, through her eyes. I suppose, between being protective of my students and opening myself up to her, I looked upon myself with more compassion.

The author piece? Well, that was an accident, I guess. An accident I worked long and very hard for.

After attending multiple critique groups, SCBWI conferences, taking over as director of the SCBWI Whispering Pines Retreat, and writing an unpublishable novel (that served in teaching me a lot about craft) these vivid scenes appeared in my head one day.

They were about a girl waking up in a hospital; I could feel her confusion and fatigue. I could smell the hospital. She is dropped into a foster family that shows her a side of life she didn't think existed. The idea of these people genuinely caring for her frightens her, so she pushes them away. Or tries to, anyway. I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to make the connection between Carley and myself.

Lynda and her mom on the day of her high school graduation.
Without being the child I was, I wouldn't have had an understanding of the many conflicting layers of Carley. Without the teacher, I don't know that I would have developed a full appreciation for what my childhood behaviors really meant. And then there's the writer that rose up through the middle of me and demanded I get it down on paper. Honestly, I didn't seriously have my eye on publication for about seven years of this 10 year journey.

I wrote because I loved it and I worked hard at it because I loved it enough to want to be better at it. Like a sliver I just had to get out. Get it down in all of its emotional honesty. No filters.

After all, no one else was going to read it anyway, right?

And then I met this agent.

But that's another story.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Lynda at Twitter.



Wednesday, June 06, 2012

New Voice: Lissa Price on Starters

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lissa Price is the first-time author of Starters (Random House, 2012). From the promotional copy:

In a future Los Angeles, becoming someone else is now possible. 

Sixteen-year-old Callie discovers the Body Bank where teens rent their bodies to seniors who want to be young again. But when her neurochip malfunctions, she wakes up in the mansion of her rich renter and finds she is going out with a senator’s grandson. 

It’s a fairy-tale new life, until she discovers her renter’s deadly plan.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I think finding a writing community is one of the most important things a writer can do. I’ve made wonderful friends by going to writer’s conferences and workshops. I met my local writing group when I went to a conference in Arizona.

Lissa's work space.
On the last day, the Sunday brunch, I sat at a table with some guys. They told me they were looking for a woman to be in their writing group because they had just lost the only female member. In case that sounds wrong, let me say that it helps to have both sexes in a writing group so you can always get a reality check.

I thought they lived far away but it turned out they lived in the city next to mine, in California, just 20 minutes away. So I joked later how I had to travel to Arizona to find my local writing group.

The group had been going on for a long time, and I loved the way they ran it. We email each other pages a day before the meeting. If we have a lot of pages that week, we try to send earlier. Then we print out the pages and write our comments on them.

At this point, after being together four or five years, we know each other’s style and personality well enough that we’re comfortable making comments. When you don’t know a group very well, there could be some temper tantrums. One of them is an attorney and one is an ex-journalist, which makes for excellent critique partners.

We’ve lost some members who got published and they were afraid I’d leave too. But I value our group too much. Many authors have writing groups.



In addition to this, I joined the Apocalypsies, a group of some 140 2012 debut authors, young adult and middle grade. I’m really glad I did this as I’ve made some wonderful friends and found a great sense of camaraderie. We share information and serve as a great support when we tour. I had one stop in a city that wasn’t well publicized. An Apocalypsie showed up with her writing group and that made my night.


The new group for YA authors debuting in 2013 is the Lucky 13s. Anyone debuting then should seriously consider joining.

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 have always been a bit of a geek nerd, so the social networking aspect of promotion came naturally to me. Before I went searching for agents, I taught myself Word Press, went to a couple of WP group meetings, and then created my own website.

When my publisher picked up my book, they looked at it and decided it was okay to continue blogging on it. They gave me a nice new banner with my book on it and I took off the excerpt and description as we were keeping the book concept secret pre-publication. They still created their own official site, which is beautiful (www.startersbooks.com and startersbooks on facebook).

Beth Revis, the author of Across the Universe and A Million Suns, invited me to join her blog, The League of Extraordinary Writers. She started it with five 2011 debut YA authors working in science fiction/fantasy, all wonderful writers. Going into the second year, she invited five authors debuting in 2012.

It’s a great group, I’m proud to be part of it. I blog on Thursdays, so sometimes I’ll pick up on a topic that was started earlier in the week and sometimes we all just write about what’s on our minds. For example, I spoke on the YA dystopian panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, so I wrote about that and how I chose to attend the Anne Rice interview.

I never have trouble thinking of a blog idea on that site, it’s more a matter of trying to write what the readers will most enjoy. It’s not like my blog where I feel I can write whatever I want.

I find that my mornings are consumed by promotion. I answer email from the east coast, then tweet about my fellow Apocalypsies news, do Q and A for blog interviews, correspond with fans, handle giveaways and promotions, fill out forms about upcoming appearances and conferences.

Some days it is all I do, and I don’t get to writing until very late at night. I am hoping that once my book has been out longer, I’ll be able to have more writing time. But what I most enjoy is getting tweets and emails from fans from twelve-year-olds to adults, saying they loved reading my book.

My advice to debut authors is to embrace the process. All of this social media allows us to connect with each other faster than ever before and that’s what it’s all about – connection.

By Paul Gregory Photography.

Cynsational Notes

The Starters Readers Guide (PDF) from Random House.

Like the Starters Facebook page and check out the FB game app.



Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Giveaway: Jane Kohuth's Duck Sock Hop, Estie the Mensch & Ducks Go Vroom

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a set of three author-signed children's books, written by Jane Kohuth -- Duck Sock Hop, illustrated by Jane Porter (Dial, 2012); Estie the Mensch, illustrated by Roseanne Litzinger (Random House, 2011); and Ducks Go Vroom, illustrated by Viviana Garofoli (Random House, 2011)! The winner also will receive Duck Sock Hop magnets!

Visit the author blog, Jane Says!

From the promotional copy of Duck Sock Hop:

Ducks pull socks from a big sock box. Socks with stripes and socks with spots . . . These ducks love their socks and they have them in every imaginable color and design. What should they do with them all? Hold a sock hop of course! A tongue-twisting, toe-tapping read-aloud sure to inspire dancing.

Cynsations New Voice Interview with Jane!
From the promotional copy of Estie the Mensch:

What's a mensch, and why does her family keep telling Estie to be one? She'd much rather be a jungle cat, or an alligator, or an octopus. But if being a mensch means helping a new friend, then maybe it's not so bad after all?

Parent Magazine's 20 Best Books of 2011!

From the promotional copy of Ducks Go Vroom: 

Simple, funny action words and onomatopoeia describe three silly ducks' rather impolite visit to their Auntie Goose's house. This rollicking, tongue-twisting, rhyming story of three enthusiastic house guests, paired with the lively artwork of illustrator Viviana Garofoli, is just the right speed for beginning readers.

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 email Cynthia directly with "Jane Kohuth" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: June 18.

Monday, June 04, 2012

New Voice: Jennifer Gennari on My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jennifer Gennari is the first-time author of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

Twelve-year-old June Farrell is sure of only one thing—she’s great at making pies—and she plans to prove it by winning a blue ribbon in the Champlain Valley Fair pie competition. But this Vermont summer, June needs not only the best berries but also a whole lot of courage. 

June’s breezy life by Lake Champlain changes when her mom’s girlfriend, Eva, moves in and they announce they want to marry under Vermont’s new civil union law. 

To make this summer even more mixed up, June’s not quite sure what to make of her feelings for Luke or her crumbling friendship with Tina.


Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Graduation, 1982.
When I won a short story contest in my local newspaper at age 15, I thought success was inevitable. I’d be an author without even really trying!

Well, for twenty years I didn’t really try, and my quickly tossed-off pieces were rejected again and again. I finally saw that it would take commitment and hard work. I was raising children, which I love doing, but one morning after another PTA meeting, I knew it was time to put some energy into my dream.

In 1999, I signed up for a weekend writing getaway in a little town called Volcano, up in the Gold Country of Northern California. I’ll never forget it—I slept in a canopy bed in a wonderful Victorian inn and shared and laughed with the other women writers. I rose early to think and write, inspired by the golden light rushing over the creek rocks.

That was the turning point. I joined a critique group, participated in a local monthly reading series, and signed up for SCBWI and every workshop I could find. I owe so much to those friends and teachers who told me when the writing was good and when it wasn’t.

So I was committed. But was I working? I liked to write poetry, but I struggled to figure out how to write more than 2,300 words (my longest short story).

I don’t read horror novels, but it was On Writing by Stephen King (Pocket Books, 2000) that inspired me to get my butt in chair and write. I also relaxed and wrote a lousy first draft after reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Anchor Books, 1994).

I began working on what I called "Pie." Inspired by some ugly prejudice I saw, I took that emotional core and built a story in a place I know very well—Vermont. Writing about pie felt natural, too—I was known for my homemade butter crusts. 



Writing about what I knew well helped me build a world for June, who slowly grew out of some specific childhood memories (and I had to relive some).



But it was my experience with step-families that further deepened her story.

Those first chapters gained me admittance to Vermont College of Fine Arts. Even after I graduated in 2006, it took another two years to land my agent, Alison Picard, and it was another two years of rejections before my manuscript sold in 2010.

And all the while, even though I sometimes despaired, I kept writing and growing.



Inevitable? Not at all. We all tell stories, and some of us write them down. It’s what happens after that first draft that matters. So I set aside weekend mornings to write and revise (even thought I do get distracted by the birds outside my home). It’s hard but satisfying work.

Jennifer's work space, complete with Shadow.
As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

One of the best decisions I made was to enroll at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004. Those two years of reading, writing, sharing, and listening made all the difference.



Need to hear straight talk on the basics of plotting? My favorite is still What’s Your Story? by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion Books, 1992), which reminds me that you better make sure your character has a problem.



I also loved working on dialogue and examining each sentence at the word level after reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins, 2004). My graduate lecture was on “How to Edit Like a Pro,” and I had great fun collecting faculty gripes.

At Vermont College, we didn’t discuss marketing and the business aspects of publishing. But I needed that apprenticeship of learning the writing craft more. And it was like camp for book lovers!

So now I’m learning all the promotion tactics—being on twitter, building a website, creating bookmarks, making connections, and guest-blogging (thank you, Cynthia!). But none of that matters if you don’t first concentrate on the hard and lovely work of writing.



Cynsational Notes

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer is an Association of Booksellers for Children Spring 2012 New Voices title.

Jennifer's desk.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Agent Update: Mary Kole of Movable Type Management

Mary visits a vineyard.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome back to Cynsations! When you last visited in 2010, you were with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. What's this we hear about your moving to a new position?

I've switched agencies, it's true! I've been approached by agencies before but never really felt the work-chemistry until a chance meeting with Jason Ashlock of Movable Type Management.

I adore the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and had an amazing foundation there--I admire and respect all of my former colleagues deeply. But I wanted to learn more about digital publishing, packaging, and the possibilities available now to writers who may be a bit more entrepreneurial, because that's my mode--I spent the first six years of my professional life at a Silicon Valley start-up that ended up selling to Google.

I love being small and nimble and in a leadership position. At MTM, I have the chance to head up the children's department and that's incredibly exciting to me.

Will your existing clients be moving with you or are you looking to rebuild from the ground up?

In an extremely humbling and gratifying move, my clients have elected to take the plunge with me at MTM. I couldn't be more thrilled. Several clients who originally came to me from Andrea's list ended up back with ABLA--though I was glad to shepherd them during my tenure there--but everyone I brought in came along for the ride.

That said, I am looking to very much build up my list and find fresh talent in my new role!

Has this change affected the types of manuscripts you're seeking? What's the scoop on your current interests?

Photo by Mary of Sacre Coeur in Paris.
Not at all. I'm still looking for picture book, middle grade, and young adult clients, with a specific emphasis on novels and author/illustrators.

For fiction, I really want projects that have a clear theme/story core, relate-able characters, strong plot, and great writing.

I'm coming out with a book this October from Writer's Digest Books called Writing Irresistible Kidlit--it's very craft-heavy. I will always be a rigorously editorial agent with high standards, but I also want premises that feel big and commercial, because that's really a hot spot in the market right now.

I like to say, "Literary spark and commercial appeal." I'd be especially curious to find mystery, thriller, fantasy, light sci-fi, adventure, horror, or contemporary realistic MG and YA novels with strong romantic elements throughout and stellar voice.

How about submissions procedures? What's the scoop?

Submission guidelines are the same as they ever were for me, but we're currently updating the MTM website, so I'm happy for the opportunity to reprint them here.

For picture books, I want the query and the full text (for writers) or a query, the text, and a link to an online illustration portfolio (for author/illustrators). If I want to see a dummy after that, I'll ask.

For middle grade and young adult, please send a query and the first 10 pages of your prose. You must use the word "Query" in your email subject line, and my email is MKole@MovableTM.com. No snail mail and no attachments, please. Every personalized email that follows guidelines will get a response!

In addition to your wonderful blog at Kidlit.com, you're also at Kidlit Apps. Could you tell us a little about your approach to each?  

Mary eating offal and fermented tofu in Hong Kong.
Because of all the changes recently, my approach to the Apps blog has been, sadly, neglect more than anything! But digital books and the developments there have always been an interest of mine. Recently, I've been putting together articles and doing some analysis of the general marketplace.

Sometimes I do app reviews, because I love seeing what's out there and thinking critically about digital books. This is a blog I hope to resurrect with gusto very soon...probably after BEA madness!

Anything you'd like to add?

I'm really excited to hit the ground running at Movable Type. In order to be successful and to help my clients grow, I have a lot to learn about the new landscape of publishing, and I really am looking to broaden my list, especially with novelists.

Before, I was one agent of nine, we all handled the same types of books, and potential clients had to choose one of us for their submission. Now, I'm the children's person at a smaller agency. All that's to say, basically, bring it on!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

New Voice: Lynne Kelly on Chained

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lynne Kelly is the first-time author of Chained (FSG, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The story of a boy and an elephant who have a friendship stronger than any lock, shackle, or chain.

Ten-year-old Hastin’s sister has fallen ill, and his family must borrow money to pay for her care in the hospital. To work off the debt, Hastin leaves his village in northern India to work in a faraway jungle as an elephant keeper. 

He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and punished until she learns her tricks perfectly. 

With the help of Ne Min, a wise old man who seems to know all about elephants, Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can. Still he wonders–will they both survive long enough to escape?

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The protagonist, Hastin, actually came into the story after Nandita the elephant and the circus owner Timir did. Initially, I was writing it as a picture book about two elephant friends, one of whom is captured to be a show elephant. I was a teacher at the time, and was already thinking of how I could use the story in the classroom with my students, since I loved incorporating picture books into math lessons. (“How many more letters are in Chyrsanthemum's name than your name?” for example.)

I'd been talking to a co-worker, Stephanie Sheffield, about the book, since she'd written some nonfiction books about math-literature connections, and her editor at the time was looking to acquire picture books that could be used in math classrooms.

At some point, she suggested, “How about adding a boy who takes care of the elephant?” That way he could refer to the length of chain used for the elephant as she grew up, and students could figure out the size of the circle she paced around the pole she was chained to.

So then Hastin was born, although I didn't know his name yet. That came after I searched through Indian names and found one that meant “elephant.” It's not a common name, but it's one that fit.

The math-literature editor turned down the manuscript since math wasn't a big enough component of the story, but I wanted to continue working on it to submit it elsewhere.

By this time, some critiquers who'd read the manuscript mentioned that the story would work better as a novel instead of as a picture book. I couldn't imagine it. That's a lot of words to write!

But after hearing the same thing from a few different people, I thought I'd better give it a try. Of course now I can't imagine it any other way.

So now I just had to get to know Hastin, our new protagonist. He'd have to be someone who loved animals and was protective of his family. He's an elephant keeper, but a reluctant one, since he'd rather stay at home with his family and let the elephant stay with hers.

I knew early on that he and Nandita the elephant would have parallel lives-- each with a family they'd like to return to, but captive workers in the elephant show. I researched where Hastin might live and work; I needed him to be close enough to home to have some hope of returning if he could escape, but far enough away to make it difficult.

When I'm working on a story, freewriting works best for me, so I did a lot of that in the beginning to discover more about Hastin. It helped to think back to how I was myself at that age. On the surface I don't have anything in common with a ten-year-old Indian boy, but we all have the same feelings, so I could keep in mind what it's like to feel sad, frightened, lonely, happy—whatever the scene called for.

 Ne Min, Hastin's mentor, turned out to be the most interesting character to write. I knew for a long time he'd be an outsider, since he left home long ago after a traumatic experience, but I was thinking of him as being from a different region of India. 

As part of my elephant research, I read Elephant Bill by James Williams (Doubleday, 1950) about managing logging elephants in Burma during World War II, and I decided to make Ne Min's character Burmese.

Of course that meant more research for me, but it allowed me to give him a backstory I really loved. Sharad, the elephant trainer, needed more backstory to round out his character.

Uma Krishnaswami on career reinvention.
Uma Krishnaswami, who critiqued the whole novel, was concerned that the adults Hastin works for were bad guys, except for Ne Min, the one not from India.

I wanted to keep Ne Min a Burmese character, but I realized that Sharad needed a more clear motivation for behaving the way he did.

When I thought about what made him the way he is, I came up with a backstory that made him a more interesting yet realistic character and explained why he was so harsh in his training of Nandita.

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

I was at work so I had to contain the excitement somewhat! I work as a sign language interpreter, and I was in a college classroom when my agent, Joanna Volpe, called.

At that time, Chained had been on submission for about three weeks. I don't remember if the class I was in was taking a break at the time or if I said to my co-worker, "Um, 212 area code, I really want to answer this," but I was able to step out in the hallway to take the call.

Jo told me that Margaret Ferguson of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was interested in acquiring the novel, and I was standing there saying, "Oh, wow, that's awesome," into the phone, since what I really felt like doing--running up and down the halls screaming--is frowned upon in most workplaces.

It was hard to focus for the rest of the day, and when I got home there was a lot of jumping around and random dancing.

Since a few other publishers had the manuscript, Jo contacted those editors to notify them of the interest; that way they'd know to start reading it if they hadn't yet and get back to her and then she kept in touch with me by phone or email for the next few days to let me know how they responded--either "no, not for me," "I like it but not enough to get in on an auction," or "Yes, I want this too." (Cue more jumping and sweet dance moves).

Since more than one publisher was interested, Jo set up an auction for a couple weeks later. I'm so glad I was home from work on auction day, because that was nerve-wracking yet super fun.

The best thing was that I knew the book would sell, and I'd have been happy with whichever editor ended up with it, so there wasn't going to be a bad outcome. Jo called and emailed throughout the day to keep me posted on how things were going, then called when it was all over to discuss the publishers' final offers. We went with FSG, and then I could celebrate the official book sale! I went to dinner with my family and probably bought some new books.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Check out Lynne's blog.
I first got the idea for the story in 2006, and it's probably a good thing I didn't know that publication was six years away--I'm not sure I would've stuck with it.

But it took time to write the story well, since I had a lot to learn about writing while I was working on the book.

And since I was thinking about it as a picture book at first, it went through a huge evolution over the years. It was in 2009 that I started submitting to agents for real (there were some earlier submissions, but before the book was really ready to go).

Of course there were some rejections, but now and then there were some requests for partial manuscripts, or even the whole thing. The partial or full requests among the rejections helped me to keep going; if the manuscript was good enough to pique an agent's interest, it would be only a matter of time before it landed on the right desk.

I'm also really thankful for the feedback I got from the agents who liked the manuscript but didn't love it enough to take it on. Besides helping in a practical way with revision suggestions, it's such a boost for a writer who's trying to get published when someone takes the time to explain why it wasn't working for them.

Early in the summer of '09, I got my first call from an agent who was interested in representation. But she wanted to see a lot of revisions first and wondered if I'd be willing to work on the manuscript more before she committed to signing with me. I said okay, because I knew she'd have great suggestions. And she did--six pages' worth! I got started on those right away and continued working on the revisions throughout the summer.

In September I was finally ready to re-submit the manuscript to her. And she said no.

*cue soul-crushing disappointment*

Something about it still wasn't working for her, so it was time for both of us to move on.

Even though it wasn't the answer I wanted, I knew the revisions had made a huge difference, so I don't regret anything about that experience, and I'm so grateful she took the time to work with me without knowing if things would work out with us.

And, since the manuscript had gotten some interest even before the giant revision, I was a huge step closer to finding the agent who'd like it and put a ring on it.

Right away I started submitting to agents again. Again, there were some rejections, some requests, and some who didn't respond. One of the agents who requested a partial was Joanna Volpe; my friend Monica Vavra was agented by her and loved her, so Jo was one of the agents I submitted to that fall.

Meanwhile, I kept working on my next manuscript--the waiting will drive you crazy when you're on submission, so it's important to keep busy by writing a new book. Whenever I received a rejection from an agent, I sent the manuscript to another.

Lynne as a child with Spike.
Then in February of 2010 I got an email from an agent who wanted to set up a phone call to discuss representation. Yay!

By some amazing coincidence, Joanna Volpe called two days before my phone call appointment with that agent. She apologized for the delay and said she'd read the 50 pages I'd sent in before and if I wasn't represented yet, she'd like to see the whole manuscript. Double yay!

I told her I wasn't represented yet, but that I was expecting a call later that week from an interested agent, and I'd send the full manuscript if she still wanted to see it. She did, and the next day she wrote back after having read the whole thing and set up a phone call to discuss representation.

I talked to both agents, and loved them both, and both offered representation. Dilemma.

But what a good problem to have! It was kind of like that time in high school when I hadn't had a date for a couple months and then two guys asked me out for the same night. But I digress. I took a couple days to think about it, and decided to go with Joanna, and I couldn't have picked a better agent.

By that time, I knew that I'd likely be a 2012 debut; books often take a long time to sell, and even if mine sold quickly, the book would be out in late 2011 at the earliest. It did sell early in May that year, so the publication date is almost exactly two years later.

I can't stress enough how much my friends from the writing community kept me going throughout the whole process. I joined the SCBWI soon after I knew I wanted to continue with this writing thing. Everyone was so supportive and they had fabulous workshops and conferences, and I found my critique groups that helped me whip the manuscript into shape.

Interview with Verla Kay.
And I've met so many writers online, like on Twitter or through groups like the Verla Kay Blue Boards. I seriously can't imagine how writers did it before the Internet. The research would've been hard enough, but to go through submission time, rejections, revisions, and writing a new draft with no one to vent to except your cats? I shudder to think of it.

Everyone needs some kind of writing community--in person, online, or both--to cheer with during the celebratory times and to hold them up during the crushing times.

Someone has to talk you off the ledge at times. And by "ledge," I mean "bed covered with Oreo wrappers."

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?

Here's another place those writing communities are vital. I'd advise any debut author to stay connected to their local writers' organizations and join a debut group. I seriously can't imagine doing it all in isolation.

All along I've had my critique groups and the SCBWI, and I'm involved with two debut author groups, The Apocalypsies and The Class of 2k12. Through those debut groups we share ideas about what marketing strategies and resources have worked and haven't worked, plan events like mutual signings and panels, and exchange bookmarks and other swag to take to our own libraries and bookstores. And since we pass our ARCs around to the group, we're able to let everyone know about all the awesome books to look for this year!

All the support from other authors is awesome, but if we're only talking to each other, we're not reaching our audience. And for middle grade authors, our audience probably isn't reading our tweets and blog posts. Often kids that age find out about books from teachers and librarians, so I've looked for ways to reach out to those groups.

Interview with Caroline Starr Rose
One idea I got from Caroline Starr Rose was a Book Club Kit Contest (now closed) for teachers and reading group coordinators. Everyone who entered got a set of Chained bookmarks for their readers, and one group won ten copies of Chained, a Skype visit, bookmarks, and other goodies.

Book bloggers are a fabulous resource too, for getting the word out about our books. A book trailer or interview on a blog that focuses on YA or kids' books will reach a different audience than a post on the author's own blog.

I've been on Facebook and Twitter for a long time, so it's been fun to celebrate the whole publication journey with my friends and followers there.

For any social media, it's important to build relationships by interacting with people; if you're just hopping on to Twitter, for example, because you have a book coming out, it'll be about as effective as shouting into an empty room.

There's so much out there, though, and we can't do it all. I'd say all writers should do whatever they're comfortable with online. If it's too much of a chore, we'll participate begrudgingly and I think that would come across to our readers.

The hardest thing for me to keep up with is the blog--I like having written a post, but I don't always like writing them, and I don't update as often as I'd like. But I could spend all day on Twitter and Pinterest, so the challenge for me is checking in with those sites without staying too long.

I always worry about all the fun stuff I'm going to miss when I log off to write, kind of like a little kid who doesn't want to go to bed.

When I really need to get to work without the distractions, I use MacFreedom to lock myself out of the Internet to get rid of the temptation to check in on all those friends who live inside my computer.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Lynne's blog, Making Stuff Up & Writing It Down, and The YAHous (YA Houston)!

See also Interview: Lynne Kelly from Cari's Book Blog.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Japanese Picture Books as a Window to Japan, English-language Asia-set Children's and Young Adult Fiction, and Children's and YA Books in Translation from Japan, all by Holly Thompson from PaperTiger's Global Voices. Peek: "The reasons for so few Japanese books being sold to English-language publishers are layered and complicated ranging from cultural differences and weak English copy or sample translations used for marketing books to foreign publishers, to stagnant picture book markets in English-speaking countries and a lack of interest from markets that are focused intently on books set in their own countries."

Picture Book Tips from Abrams Books for Young Readers at Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "This breakout session focused on what Brazis finds important in any manuscript coming across her desk- memorable characters with strong voice, a genuine relationship between characters, and an obvious character arc."

Do Non-interactive Books Do a Better Job of Encouraging Literacy than Interactive Books? by Sheila Ruth from Wands and Worlds. Peek: " The study found that when parents and children read together, children recall significantly more details when reading print books or regular, non-enhanced ebooks than they do when reading interactive ebooks."

CBC Diversity Committee: Starting Conversations and Building a Following by John A. Sellers from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Mercado stresses that the members of the diversity committee are open to suggestions from all corners, and that this is just the beginning. 'None of us are experts in this area, but we all see a need for something like this. It can only happen from everybody getting involved,' she says."

Of Plot Promises and Michael Jackson by Peggy Eddleman of Crowe's Nest. Peek: "My teacher made our class a deal. If we met certain goals–really, really hard goals the whole class would have to work for— THE Michael Jackson would come to our class."

Writing Credentials by Gina Damico from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "Credentials aren't necessary. Can they help? Absolutely. But can you also get published without them? Absolutely."

Cynsational Blogger Tip: White space is your friend. Look at your posts. Are they all gray? All text without any breathing room? (And, eep, no images?) Consider a space between paragraphs. It'll make your blog so much more readable.

Harry Potter, Seriously by Philip Nel from Nine Kinds of Pie. Peek: "Children’s literature is literature. Intelligent adults already know this. However, as those of you who study or write or teach children’s literature are well aware, the world is full of alleged grown-ups who insist on spreading the myth that children’s literature is not literature, and (thus) cannot be studied as such."

Jane Friedman: Authors on Facebook by Sarah W. Bartlett from sarahscapes: the nature of writing life. Peek: "I can’t imagine using Facebook as a replacement for a meaningful blog. I don’t mean to say everyone should blog, but a Facebook status update doesn’t have much in common with a great blog."

Writers Block: Take a Break by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro. Peek: "Try these suggestions, and experiment to find new tricks that work for you."

Talking "Dark" YA Lit with Terry Trueman from Blogging Censorship: The National Coalition Against Censorship. Peek: "Isn’t it best to help our children deal with new, possibly frightening and difficult subjects through the intelligent and caring platform of literature rather than to just leave difficult and painful parts of life to happenestances and the scribblings on public restroom walls?" Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

How to Respond to Negative Reviews from Beth Revis. Peek: "My own husband hates chocolate. I didn't find this out until after we were married."

Gratitude and Goodbyes by Mary Quattlebaum from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "Before the advent of electronic submissions, I used to package a manuscript and walk it to the post office and then reward myself with a quiet hour or two."

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook, 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 Year of the Beasts" in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: midnight June 11. See also Cecil Castellucci on Medusa, a Childhood Friend.

Brendan Buckley's Sixth-Grade Experiment by Sundee T. Frazier (Delacorte, 2012) was Robin in Texas.

Middle Grade Memories: Greg Leitich Smith ( + Giveaway) from Claire Legrand. Peek: "In any event, The Enormous Egg (Little, Brown) is one of the few books that show (and showed) dinosaurs and humans interacting in a somewhat realistic fashion and is a classic of the 'bring-the-dinosaurs-to-us' genre, well worth a read today." Note: giveaway features The Enormous Egg and a signed copy of Greg's new release, Chronal Engine (Clarion/HMH, 2012).

Cover Reveal & Nine-Book Giveaway by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Kimberley's Wanderings. Take a peek at Kimberley's upcoming novel, When the Butterflies Came (Scholastic) and enter to win! 

This Week at Cynsations
By Shirley Smith Duke

More Personally

Illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein.
The manuscript formerly known as "Smolder" has a new title (and the series has a new title, too). I've seen the cover (as well as some interior page design work), and it's too early to share, but I'm hopeful you'll find it intriguing. 

In non-writing news, I saw "Men in Black III" at the Alamo Drafthouse last weekend and highly recommend it--if only for Josh Brolin's depiction of Tommy Lee Jones as K. Wow.

Attention: Dallas YA & Graphic Novel fans! Look for Ming Doyle, the illustrator of Tantalize: Kieren's Story and the forthcoming Eternal: Zachary's Story (both Candlewick) at A-Kon, this weekend at the Sheraton Dallas! See more information.

Congratulations to my student, illustrator Joy Fisher Hein, and author Cherie Foster Colburn on the release of Bloomin' Tales: Seven Wildflower Legends (Bright Sky, 2012)!

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith, whose Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) was named a Top Pick for High Interest Middle Graders by the editors at Junior Library Guild at School Library Journal!

Personal Links:
By Susan Taylor Brown.
About Greg Leitich Smith:
  • Author Insights: Writing Behind the Scenes from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: "If someone had a behind-the-scenes pass to observe your writing process what would they see?" Note: includes answers from several authors, including Greg.
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events

Central Texans! Mark your calendars for June 9 at BookPeople! Greg Leitich Smith will speak on "Writing Speculative Fiction" at 10 a.m. and Don Tate will host a book launch and signing of It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low, 2012) at noon.



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