Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New Voice: Liesl Shurtliff on Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Liesl Shurtliff is the first-time author of Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013). From the promotional copy:

In a magical kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone’s joke.

Rump has never known his full name—his mother died before she could tell him. So all his life he’s been teased and bullied for his half-a-name. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. For Rump discovers he can spin straw into gold. Magical gold.

His best friend Red Riding Hood warns him that magic is dangerous—and she’s right! That gold is worth its weight in trouble. And with each thread he spins, Rump weaves himself deeper into a curse.

There’s only one way to break the spell: Rump must go on a quest to find his true name, along the way defending himself against pixies, trolls, poison apples, and one beautiful but vile-mannered queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—Rump just might triumph in the end.

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?

Pre-Contract Revisions

I loved the concept for my book, but it became apparent early in the process that I could not rely on the inherent interestingness of my concept to carry the story, and that while my writing was lively and my characters fun, I had some real work do to when it came to plot, especially the ending.

This was slapped into my brain when I attended a local conference and had an editor critique the first ten pages of an early draft of my novel. She was very complimentary. Loved the idea, the writing, but then asked where I intended to take the story and how I was going to resolve it all. Admittedly, I was still working through some of those things, but I had to tell her something. Unfortunately what I told her was just a notch above lame. She sort of sucked in her breath and said, “Hmm. Be careful with that. I’m not saying it can’t work, but it has the potential to be disappointing to your reader.”

After that fateful meeting with the editor, I spent a weekend totally depressed and drowned myself in chocolate. After I gained five pounds and cried chocolate tears, I picked myself up and decided that I wanted to do this right and to do that, I had to do the dirty work.

I brainstormed like crazy over my plot, agonizing over character motivations, and small details. I used my husband as a sounding board. I rewrote 50% of what I had and within just a few months of that editor’s critique, I had a much stronger novel. I landed an agent in a month and got a contract just two months after that. Sometimes we have to get beaten down to get strong, I guess.


My editor said from the beginning that she felt my book was strong, so we didn’t make any huge excavations of my story, but I’ve learned that the small, gritty details are sometimes the most difficult parts of revision. Because you’re so close to the manuscript, it’s hard to see how changing small things might affect the big picture. And small thing can change the big picture. Little cogs can power big things.

I also worried about being a “Yes” Girl, and letting my story get away from me. I’ve always been open to suggestions and criticism, but I’ve also never had a problem disregarding advice that simply did not resonate with me.

Somehow it felt different working with an editor. I really wanted to please her, so everything she said seemed to come with a little extra weight. Still, I agonizing over little things my editor asked me to cut or tone down. I worried that I might be watering down the voice, oversimplifying the story, or even sacrificing creative expression for the sake of pleasing librarians and parents, which at the time felt like a betrayal of my creative integrity and my intended audience.

In the end, I found my editor to be right on just about everything. Still, I think it’s right to agonize over these things. I’m glad I did, because now I have complete confidence that the revisions and changes I made in my story were mine. I listened to suggestions and reason, as any writer should, but I never made changes without first reasoning it out in my own mind and deciding that this really would make the story stronger.

Advice for Other Writers

There are a lot of good writers out there. I mean people who can string words together in beautiful ways and write a stunning paragraph, and have lots of awesome ideas that make for a killer opening that probably gets lots of requests from agents and editors, but that doesn’t always translate into an amazing story. This is where revising comes into play, and it’s just as much of a skill as the writing itself. You have to become a kind of book surgeon. Revision is all about proper diagnosis and treatment. Cut out the bad, develop the good, murder the extraneous darlings.

The best writers I know are great revisers, and this takes practice. So practice.

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 have always adored fantasy, as a child and an adult. I think the idea of different worlds is what first attracted me to the genre, and of course the magic. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and I kept wishing Narnia would appear in my closet.

I still get a little nostalgic as an adult, and when my nine-year-old daughter admitted that she wished she would get a letter from Hogwarts, I had to admit that I would really like one, too. I really would.

But at the end of the day, I think what I really love about fantasy is the connections between the fantasy and the real world. It isn’t really the strange and different things that make fantasy so wonderful. It’s the way those strange and different things are similar to the ordinary. They give a lens for us to view our everyday lives in a different way, and hopefully come away transformed.

Here’s something I don’t tell people very often: I stayed away from fantasy as a writer because I didn’t think I was creative enough. It’s easy to read other fantasy novels and get intimidated by the brilliance of the world, the unique concepts, the intricate magic systems, etc. I thought it would be much easier to write realistic fiction (that is not true, by the way) but my imagination always gravitated toward fantasy.

Eventually I got over my inferiority complex enough to give it a go. I’m so glad I did!

For Rump, I think I have been most inspired and influenced by Gail Carson Levine, particularly Ella Enchanted, and Roald Dahl. Matilda was always my favorite, though James and the Giant Peach is a close second.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Event Report: Texas Library Association

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Thanks to Candlewick Press, TLA's YART librarians, Mackin, the Book Festivals of Texas booth, my fellow authors, the other exhibitors, the other attending children's-YA librarians (and teens!), and everyone else who pitched in to make this year's TLA convention in Fort Worth such a success!

Spirit of Texas YA author panel with librarian Natasha Benway, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Gail Giles, Jennifer Ziegler & C.C. Hunter
With fellow SPOT author C.C.
Austin public librarians Michelle Beebower & Nichole Chagnon
Candlewick "family" dinner with Deborah Noyes, Sharon Hancock, Tanya Lee Stone, Hilary Van Dusen, Jon Klassen, Jenny Choy & Greg Leitich Smith at Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth
The next day, I signed in the author area and at the Mackin booth
Greg, E. Kristin Anderson & Rachel Caine signing at the Book Festivals of Texas booth
With librarians Natasha Benway & Tabatha Perry in the Book Festivals of Texas booth
Greg's Chronal Engine editor Daniel Nayeri (also a YA author & HMH publishing pro)
Greg with librarian Naomi Bates
Kathi Appelt signing ARCs of The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
Jane Yolen
Kelly Bennett shows of Vampire Baby at the Candlewick booth
Highlights of the convention included meeting Jon Klassen -- very personable, nice guy!
Chris Rylander
With Victoria Scott, modeling The Collector
Mari Mancusi models Scorched
Rosemary & Greg model Spirit and Dust
Tim Tingle has his own booth
With Mary E. Pearson in the green room before the Texas Tea
My table with Deb & Round Rock librarians at the Texas Tea (authors rotated from one table to the next)
With Jenni Holm at the Omni
Okay, I'm not a librarian, but I couldn't resist!
Cynsational Notes

See also TLA Convention Photo Reports from P.J. Hoover and Greg Leitich Smith.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cynsational News, Giveaways & Events

Discover Victoria's oddest recap.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Insight: Peculiar Recaps from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: "What is the weirdest way someone (possibly you) has recapped your book?"

Spring Cleaning Your Manuscript by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Peek: "As with a title change, sometimes characters need a fresh, new start. When you started your story, you probably named your characters for really deep meanings. Do these meanings still matter?"

Two Strategic Reasons to Keep Blogging & When to Kill a Blog by Dan Blank from Jane Friedman. Peek: "While social media delivers a potentially more immediate reaction from others, I am still a big believer in blogging. There are many reasons for this, but let’s just focus on two specific reasons. Then we’ll discuss how to deal with blogging exhaustion—or when to kill a blog entirely."

It's Okay to Slow Down by Lee Bross from YA Highway. Peek: "I was one of those people who had to be working on something, anything, every minute of the day. After five straight years of this, I was a mess."

Writers, How Healthy Are Your Boundaries? by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "You believe what you’ve been told—that you’re not smart enough or creative enough. As a result, rejection from editors or negative critiques from a writing partner can set you back for a week."

Attention Teachers! Debbie's Doodle Outreach from Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Peek: "If your class sends me a snail mail about I'm Bored, I will write back with doodles."

Know Your Best Alternative by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "You're querying a manuscript and an Agent, Annie Awesome, calls to offer representation. You hit it off on the phone, and she sends you her agency contract. But in that contract, you find something you don't feel comfortable with. What do you do?"

Danger! Dialogue Ahead by Marc Tyler Nobleman from The Horn Book. Peek: "When writing nonfiction, including dialogue can be a dangerous proposition."

1968 Newbery Award Acceptance Speech by Elaine L. Konigsburg from The Horn Book. Peek: " have this foolish faith in words. Because I want to show it happening. Because for some atavistic, artistic, inexplicable reason, I believe that the writing of it makes normal of it." See also Roger Sutton on Remembering Elaine Konigsburg from The Horn Book and E.L. Konigsburg, Author, Is Dead at 83 from The New York Times.

Cynsational Screening Room

Book Trailer Interview with Meredith Zeitlin by Rachel Wilson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "We definitely didn’t want to do something linear, like a movie trailer, or anything where you’d see a 'Kelsey' – one of the reasons I don’t really describe her, or any of the characters in the book, physically is because I want readers to picture her any way they want. So that’s why only her hands are visible in the trailer."

Check out the book trailer for Octopus Alone by Divya Srinivasan (Viking, 2013) and plan to celebrate the release in Austin, Texas; Naperville, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; Washington, D.C.; Corte Madero, California; or Los Angeles.


Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations
Celebrating Bridget Zinn's Poison

Austin writers & readers gathered Friday night to celebrate Poison by Bridget Zinn (Hyperion, 2013) at BookPeople. Several local authors signed and a few read from the book.

Modeling Poison
Signing with Lindsey Lane, P.J. Hoover, Susie Kralovansky & Nikki Loftin
Nikki & Cory Putnam Oakes
Liz Garton Scanlon, Greg Leitich Smith, Cynthia Levinson
Feral Nights & Poison
See also E.M. Kokie on Bridget Zinn & Poison

BookPeople has leftover signed stock from this event! Please either swing by the store to pick up your copy or buy it online.

More Personally

New graphic novel at TLA!
Cynsations readers will note that this week's roundup is posted earlier than usual due to my participation in this week's Texas Library Association conference (photos to come!).

I had a great time yesterday participating in YART's YA Spirit of Texas panel. I'll be signing Feral Nights, Eternal: Zachary's Story and more in the author area at 1 p.m. and the Mackin booth (2125) at 2 p.m. today (Thursday) and will appear at the Texas Tea on Friday.

(By the way, Greg Leitich Smith will be signing Chronal Engine (Clarion) and doing a giveaway of Tofu and T. Rex (Little, Brown) at the Book Festivals of Texas (2145) booth at 3 p.m. today (Thursday)).

If you're at TLA, come find me, say "howdy," and check out my latest books at the Candlewick Press booth! Next week I'll be back to the regular blogging schedule.

What else? Last weekend, I popped by a reception in honor of Sara Zarr, who was teaching a workshop on Emotional Pacing, at The Writing Barn in Austin.

Sara with Joy Preble
Sara Kocek & Katie Bayerl
Salima Alikhan
Sara & Bethany Hegedus welcome participants and guests
Writers introduce themselves & talk about their work.
With Varsha Bajaj
Personal Links

Cynsational Events

By Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali 
Authors/Speakers at TLA 2013 from April 24 to April 27 in Fort Worth from the Texas Library Association. Look for Cynthia Leitich Smith's signings on Thursday and the Spirit of Texas High School author panel on Wednesday. Check out my latest books at the Candlewick Press booth. See also the Itsy Bitsy Gallery to "take a chance on art at the TLA 2013 raffle" to benefit the Texas Library Disaster Relief Fund. Note: featuring an original illustration by Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali by Janice Shefelman (Eerdman's).

YA lit readers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 6:30 p.m. May 25 at Round Rock Public Library.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith at 11 a.m. June 11 at Lampasas (TX) Public Library.

Join authors Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin and ICM Partners literary agent Tina Wexler at a Whole Novel Workshop from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. Peek: "Our aim is to focus on a specific work in progress, moving a novel to the next level in preparation for submission to agents or publishers. Focused attention in an intimate setting makes this mentorship program one that guarantees significant progress." Special guests: Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla, authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.

Find out what's new with the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

We Believe in Picture Books: John & Katherine Paterson

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Authors John and Katherine Paterson discuss picture books from Candlewick Press.

Cynsational Notes

Part of a "yearlong celebration of picture books, featuring Candlewick's authors, illustrators, staff, family and friends."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Voice: Claire M. Caterer on The Key & The Flame

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Claire M. Caterer is the first-time author of The Key & The Flame (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

“A wand such as yours can only belong to an Adept—one of great magical power.”

Eleven-year-old Holly Shepard is hardly one of great magical power. She’s just an ordinary girl living in an even more ordinary American suburb. Her brother Ben excels in the advanced-math class while Holly pulls a C for daydreaming and doodling on her test papers. But her greatest wish—to escape her humdrum existence and experience true adventure—has just been waiting for the right moment to come true.

When the family travels to England for the summer, Holly finds more adventure than even she bargained for—an ancient iron key that unlocks visions, portals, and even the magic long slumbering in Holly herself. With Ben and his friend Everett, Holly travels to Anglielle, a medieval kingdom where magic is outlawed and those with magical powers are hunted by a ruthless king. Holly soon discovers that her magic is the most sought-after of all.

Packed with magic and adventure, The Key & The Flame is only the beginning of a five-part series that chronicles how Holly, Ben, and Everett strive to restore magic to Anglielle and defeat the evil forces that hold the kingdom in its grip.

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?

Before I ever thought about getting an agent, I followed my standard five-step writing/revision strategy:

Research books
Draft 1: No Holds Barred. 

I like to write a first draft straight through, no revisions.

This works best if I write every day, but The Key & the Flame was interrupted by research, plotting out the rest of the series, world building, and oh yes, occasionally paying work. So the first draft was even messier than usual, and I did do some revising as I went along.

Draft 2: The Hacksaw Method.

Typically, I write scared. I get so nervous that I stretch out a scene to avoid moving on to the next one. That first draft of The Key & The Flame ran 138,000 words, or around 670 book pages! I started chopping paragraphs like a butcher.

Draft 3: The Big Picture.

After letting the manuscript rest awhile, I read it all the way through, making notes as I went. This draft dealt with character motivation, inconsistencies, the arc of the plot, etc.

Draft 4: The Little Picture.

After another hiatus, I read the manuscript again with a critical eye to the prose. I looked for clich├ęs, writing tics, weak verbs, and passive voice.

Draft 5: The Final Round.

Another read-through focused on whatever I’ve missed the first four times.

I thought the manuscript was in pretty good shape after all that, but after my first round of submissions got no nibbles, I realized that the book was still too long (127,000 words). So I revised again, cutting another 40,000 words.

On my second round of submissions, score! Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary Agency signed me with the caveat that the manuscript needed a few—yes—revisions.

Chris was very clear that he would represent the book no matter what, but he thought it would sell easier with the changes he suggested. He wanted me to go deeper, show more of my main character’s emotions and reactions to what’s happening around her. Extend the timeline. In other words, add to the manuscript.

It was hard to believe that I’d actually cut too much from my book. But if Chris was happy to bring the manuscript up to 95,000 words, then so was I. And apparently the book was stronger for it, because a couple of months after we’d revised it, he sold it to Simon & Schuster.

I’d love to say the revising days were done, that editor Ruta Rimas said, “Ha! Apart from a spell-check, this baby’s ready to roll!”

But I’m so glad she didn’t. Ruta wanted the book to succeed—not just from a commercial point of view but from a fictional, literary point of view. She wanted more details about some characters, and more mystery about others. She wanted to know how magic worked in Anglielle, and what were Holly’s doubts about her role there.

Answering these questions took another six weeks. Then we did another read-through before the manuscript finally went to the copy editor. She looked at consistency, grammar, style, and asked some very good questions.

So...how many drafts?

Mine alone: at least five

Mine with agent: two

Mine with editor & copy editor: three

That’s ten drafts. Ten!

Did all this nitpicking bug me?

Actually, I was okay with it. I’ve been writing for a long time and have been critiqued many times over the years. I’ve developed a thick skin, and that’s essential.

No matter how brilliant you are, your manuscript will be critiqued by someone, usually lots of someones, and many times. No one suggested I drop a favorite character or throw out a plotline. Some suggestions I vetoed.

In the end, the story, the writing, and the voice were still mine. With those things intact, I felt good about the revisions.

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’ve been a fantasy reader as long as I’ve been any kind of reader. I’ve always loved stories about the possible and the impossible. I think these stories resonate with kids because the whole world already seems like an impossibly weird place. All sorts of things are a mystery. How do people drive cars? Why do giraffes have such long necks? What is the moon made of?

The other part of it is that as a kid, I wanted some control. When you’re ten, you make very few of the decisions about your life—where you live, who you live with, what school you go to, which kids you sit by. In fantasy, you can be in charge.

The books I loved often involved ordinary kids who encountered the extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Puffin, 2005/1945).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Road Dahl (Puffin, 2005/1964).

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (HarperCollins, 2001/1952).

 Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers (Harcourt, 2006/1934).

 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Penguin, 2000/1865)

But of all of them, the books that resonated the most with me were The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins, 1950-1956).

I remember when I first discovered them. It was the summer after third grade. My very best friend in the world was getting ready to move across the country (another thing I couldn’t control). The last afternoon we spent together, instead of running around outside, we decided to just stay in and read. She handed me a book from her shelf. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I only managed to read a chapter or two before I had to go home and say goodbye to her forever. But I remembered the book. It took me another year or so to locate a copy, and once I found it, I read it over and over again. And then I moved on to the rest of the series. Lewis had a way of writing for kids as if he were one too, entering Narnia right alongside us.

The most delicious parts of the story were the moments of discovery—pushing open the wardrobe door and feeling the scratch of pine branches on your face; ducking inside Mr. Tumnu’s cottage; tasting the White Witch’s Turkish Delight; and of course, catching that first glimpse of Aslan the lion.

Claire's desk
In my novel The Key & The Flame, the main character, Holly, is eleven years old. It’s a crucial age. You start to question everything. You don’t want to be hoodwinked. It’s almost—but not quite—too late for magic. That’s why it’s critical for Holly to enter the world of Anglielle now, before she’s lost to adulthood forever.

Claire's file cabinet
It’s telling that this world of magic and danger is one where the authority figures despise magic and try to stamp it out. Isn’t that what adults always do, try to steer kids towards reality, insisting they grow up and take responsibility?

Everyone wants to rule their own destiny—in effect, to be grown up—but we want it on our own terms. The idea that magic is still a part of the world, something to be preserved, is what fueled my story.

I love fantasy because to me, magic is the heart of childhood. It’s what separates the kids from the grownups. It’s what makes children wiser than adults, the idea that anything can happen, and some things you just have to take on faith.

It’s sad that we lose that feeling. It’s obvious that people yearn for its return, or adults would never read science fiction or The Lord of the Rings.

We are people tied to our myths and our folklore for good reason. These stories of heroes and quests and extraordinary powers are found in every culture and every tradition. It’s what we aspire to be, whether we’re nine years old or ninety.

Cynsational Notes

Check out the teachers' guide for The Key & The Flame (PDF).

Claire's dogs