Saturday, November 16, 2013

New Voice: C.S. Johnson on The Starlight Chronicles: Slumbering

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

C.S. Johnson is the first-time author of The Starlight Chronicles: Slumbering (Book 1 of the Starlight series)(Westbow/Thomas Nelson, 2013). Note: Thomas Nelson is a Christian press. From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Hamilton Dinger is at the top of his class, charismatic, and athletic.

Everything seems perfect as he enters into tenth grade at Apollo Central High School. Then a meteor crashes into the city, unleashing a whirlwind of evil and awakening a deep, hidden power.

His longtime dormant supernatural powers rise in the war zone. What will he sacrifice in pursuit of the truth?

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist?

My protagonist found me, more than I found him. I began to dream of him in ninth grade, when my math teacher Mr. Shoemaker gave my friend Sam the nickname of "Wingdinger," and I thought it sounded like a superhero name.

I thought about the story often as I dealt with high school. I would not say I was bullied in the traditional sense, but I felt a large sense of rejection. While I did have my own friends, and I was glad for them, it was hard making new ones. So in my daydream moments, Hamilton's character began to shape itself. It wasn't until 12th grade he really had a voice: that of the hardened, cynical atheist.

Having grown up in faith, I wondered what it would be like to see the world the way someone else does, and what it would be like if there was an instance where he met God - like Paul on the road to Damascus. And I found a kinship I had not expected with the atheist, rooted in my own failed idealism. Hamilton quickly became part of my own voice, with his narcissism, his pride, and his disillusionment.

Hamilton's response to the supernatural is what I fear mine own would be in the same situation: to continue on, to fear for the state of my mental and physical health, to only half-wonder at the possibilities which are miraculously presented.

Hamilton is a fallen star, who came to earth, and, having transcended into the earthly realm, is stuck in a human body, but he has no memory of this. When he finds out, he is faced with stopping the other fallen stars, the seven deadly Sinisters, and their leader, Orpheus, as they try to steal the soulfire, the life-force, from humans. He is able to transform into a superhero-type starlight warrior, and throughout his attempts to stop the various monsters and demons, he has to get through tenth grade, dating, and school activities.

That said, while Hamilton is the narrator, he is not the only protagonist of the book series. While it is not so evident in book 1, Starry Knight will become more and more centralized as the series continues. She is Hamilton's foil; she is very certain and precise, and she knows what she is doing. But like Hamilton, she struggles with loving people even as she seeks to save them from the ensuing evil. Throughout the rest of the series she will move closer and closer to center stage as she fights with Hamilton, herself, and her destiny.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing? As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? 

Being a teacher keeps me in touch with my audience. I recognize my high school self in many of my students’ faces – the same awkwardness, trouble with looks, insecurity, figuring out life choices, and wanting to be loved, accepted, and respected.

As for writing time, it comes and goes. I have the weekends, lunch hours, holidays, sick days, kid-sick days, and general planned writing time to write.

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? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

I was more than nine months pregnant at the time it came out, so I had other concerns. But there is no maternity leave for marketing, and with the next one I won’t make that assumption again.

My fellow debut authors, prepare to work. Thank God for the Internet! Websites, blogs, networking, getting out in public with your book, getting the news, the media, the radio, and a few billboard companies greatly help with stirring the interest in your work. I also recommend partnering up with a charity if you can.

I am going to finish up my master’s degree, keep writing, and work on juggling. You need to work hard to get the benefits of success.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sometimes the "Tough" Teen Is Quietly Writing Stories by Matt de la Peña from NPR. Peek: "My professor said something I will never forget when I went and talked to her the following week. Even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, she explained, there's still hope."

Getting the Writing Done: Crunch Times by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Check for emergency email first thing in the morning, answer any from editors, and leave the rest till the end of the writing day."

Book Marketing: The Basics by Jane Friedman from Scratch. Peek: "Remember that a comprehensive book-marketing campaign uses a combination of tactics to reach readers." See also The Difference Between Marketing & Publicity by M.J. Rose & Randy Susan Meyers from Jane Friedman.

On Writing, Depression and Gaining Control by April C. Rose from YA Highway. Peek: "I was able to shape my characters into the pieces of me I wished I could be."

Ten Steps to an Overnight Success, or How It Only Took a Decade to Get Paid by Michaelbrent Collings from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are 'professionals' (i.e., occasionally paid) — is much, much lower."

Why So Serious? by Keith Cronin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...I wonder whether we’re drawn to such things because up until just a century or two ago, our own day-to-day lives were filled with far more violence, hardship and darkness than many of us now experience, so perhaps it addresses some psychological/emotional void we’re feeling."

Top Tips for a Scary Story by Jonathan Stroud from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "While you’re spending a little time picking out the finer points of your characters, you can intersperse a few subtle hints about your ghostly set-up." Source: Jen Robinson.

Preparing for a Panel by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: "A good panel is the result of good moderation."

Keeping It Real: Female Protagonists in YA Lit by Jenn Walkup from YA Highway. Peek: "Very often, especially in first person point of view, the female protagonist is on the journey of her story until she falls in love. Then she becomes very passive and it’s all about the love interest, the romance, and the rest of the story often falls away."

Four Ways to Make Librarians Love Your School Visits by Toni Buzzeo from School Visit Experts. Peek: "Whether the librarian is the one to reach out to you, or you are the first to establish contact, the impression you make in your first and ongoing communications will set the tone of the visit."

Inside Stories about Memorable Books by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "We asked 20 prominent editors to recall a personally meaningful children's book project."

On Gender and Boys Read Panels by Anne Ursu from Terrible Trivium. Peek: "When we give panels on boys and reading with only (or even predominantly) male authors, we tell boys they are only supposed to like books by men. (This will be surprising to J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins.)" See also Consternated About Gender and Middle Grade Books from Charlotte's Library.

Who's Story Is It Anyway? Keeping Kids in the Spotlight by Joseph McGee from Project Mayhem. Peek: "Children want to read about other children in the role of the protagonist, as the hero. In this sense they can both relate, and inject themselves into the story."

This Week at Cynsations

A Dino A Day Strikes Back

A Dino A Day Strikes Back
Surf over to GregLSBlog for A Dino A Day Strikes Back, featuring author Greg Leitich Smith and shot at various landmarks around Austin, Texas!

It's a dinosaur T-shirt celebration of the paperback release of Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2013) and new editions of Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo and Tofu and T.rex (IntoPrint, 2013)(originally published by Little, Brown).

Day 1: Palmer Events Center (Austin Marathon Expo)
Day 2: Texas Memorial Museum (Exterior/Statuary)
Day 3: Waller Creek Boat House
Day 4: Hartmann Prehistoric Garden
Day 5: UT Alumni Center
Day 6: O. Henry House and Museum
Day 7: Santa Rita No. 1 oil rig
Day 8: Texas Memorial Museum (Interior/Fish)

See also the Chronal Engine Activity Kit.

Cynsational Giveaway

The winner of One Word Pearl (Charlesbridge), signed by illustrator Hazel Mitchell and a signed giclee print from the book is Jeri in Colorado and the runner-up (who won a signed copy of the book) is Penny in Texas.

More Personally

Thanks again to everyone who showed up to celebrate the Illumine Awards and to support the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. See photo report.

For those who asked for a full shot of my dress for the Illumine Award benefit.

Thank you, KidlitCon, for gracious enthusiasm at my Saturday morning keynote! See reports from fellow faculty at Finding Wonderland, Semicolon, Jen Robinson's Book Page, Stacked, MotherReader (and more), Charlotte's Library. See also Session Recap: Blogger Burnout: Suggestions for Getting Your Groove Back from Jen Robinson's Book Page. Note: if I missed your roundup, write me with the link and I'll post it next week.

At KidLitCon with Lee Wind from I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?

Bloggers assemble at KidLitCon!

More bloggers assemble at KidLitCon!

With P.J. Hoover at Barnes & Noble Round Rock

Thank you to Annemarie O'Brien and her class at Pixar for their kind attention during last night's online author visit.

Congratulations to Lupe Ruiz-Flores on signing with Mira Reisberg of Hummingbird Literary Agency, and congratulations to Mira on signing Lupe!

Personal Links

 Cynsational Events

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Florida Association for Media in Education Conference Nov. 20 to Nov. 22 in Orlando.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will teach from June 16 to June 20 at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah. Note: details are still emerging.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Guest Post: Sarah LaPolla on Finding Her Voice as an Agent

By Sarah LaPolla
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In a way, I’m still finding my voice as an agent.

My taste evolves based on what published books I read, what new genres my clients explore, and how my own preferences mature over time.

I started interning at an agency when I was 23 years old and Twilight-mania hadn’t yet hit, so YA was barely a blip on the radar of agents who weren’t already doing “children’s fiction” for years.

I spent my early 20s reading queries for literary fiction, memoir, and short story collections, which was coincidentally what I also read for fun.

Sarah works from home in Queens.
When I started taking on clients of my own, I thought I would absolutely focus on the same things, and maybe some urban fantasy, since by that time paranormal was everywhere.

The post-Twilight YA market had also taken full effect, so I thought I’d open myself up to that too, even though I really hadn’t read any modern YA other than Harry Potter. That changed quickly.

YA ended up becoming my focus as an agent, but I never planned it that way. I knew I always loved contemporary/realistic fiction, and for whatever reason I didn’t think I could turn that into my actual job.

I sought out things I would have loved to read as a teen, and I kept an eye on market trends to know what to avoid and what to look for.

Something that surprised me was that the books I loved as a teen helped create the current market, but wouldn’t be able to compete with the high concepts and modern voices of today. What I read for fun also changed because of this, whether YA or adult fiction. I lost patience for stories about the main character finding “themselves,” but not much else. I needed my characters to jump off the page and demand my attention. Rather than simply enjoy a book, I need to feel an emotional connection to it.

Since becoming an agent, I realized I am less crazy about what I thought I’d represent (quiet, coming-of-age literary novels, paranormal anything, memoir).

Instead, I found a voice representing edgy, decidedly not quiet YA, and have since started taking on upmarket women’s fiction and “quirky” literary fiction for adults.

I still love genre fiction, and hope to find that magical realism, literary sci-fi, or psychological mystery I’ve been waiting for. But what I’m more excited to find is something new that takes me by surprise and continues to influence my taste as an agent and as a reader.



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Beth Durst on Darkness & Light

By Sarah Beth Durst
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

My new YA novel Conjured (Bloomsbury, 2013) is the darkest novel I've ever written. I worked hard to create an atmosphere of disorientation and ominous chaos.

It's about a girl in the paranormal witness protection program, who, haunted by visions of carnival tents and tarot cards, must remember her past and why she has strange abilities before a magic-wielding serial killer hunts her down. Bad stuff happens. And lots of bad stuff almost happens.

And I also have conversations about bacon:

"Because my wife -- you know, the doctor with the fancy degree -- demands that I cut out all stress from my life," Lou said.

Listening to his voice, Eve began to shake. She knew his voice. Oh, yes, she knew it deep, the way she knew the pulse in her veins and the breath in her lungs. "Already cut out red meat, red wine, sausage, and bacon. And you know how I feel about bacon. There's no other food with a scent more perfectly designed to trigger the appetite than bacon. You could pump the smell of bacon into a room full of vegetarians after a veggie-burger-eating contest, and every one of them would crave cooked pig before the end of an hour. So explain to me exactly why you are rendering my no-bacon sacrifice moot by giving me an aneurysm."

As she listens to Lou, Eve is remembering the painful involuntary surgery that he ordered. Her entire body was reconstructed without her consent. (Or if she did consent, she doesn't remember it. She doesn't remember much of anything, actually.)

The idea was to make her memories feel scarier because of the contrast with the dialogue.

And that's the part I feel strongly about: that contrast. Darkness is meaningless without light.

Of course, you can write a novel that is unrelentingly dark, wherein everyone is serious or angsting or in pain all the time, because life is nasty, brutish, and short. There are plenty of revered and wonderful novels like that. And if that's your worldview, then that's what you should write.

But from a sheer writerly technical standpoint, lightness -- be it kindness, happiness, humor, even anger disguised as humor -- can be a powerful tool. It can add meaning to the dark. It can increase the reader's emotional investment. It can be used to deflect, defuse, and disarm, to charm and seduce, or to belittle and crush. It can be used to hide and to reveal.

The trick is to figure out what balance you want for a particular novel. Too much light in a thriller, for example, and you run the risk of sapping away the suspense. Too little light, and you run the risk of being unrealistic or melodramatic.

This might not work for everyone (every writer's process is different), but for me, I always plan for one draft to be the de-snarking draft. My natural inclination is to throw in lots of snark and non sequiturs, but that doesn't always fit the tone of the story. So I do one pass through the novel where all I do is tweak the levels of light and dark. I think of it like adjusting whatever all those dials and buttons are on a sound board.

What kind of balance you want differs from writer to writer and from novel to novel. But I think it's worth it to spend some time adjusting those dials and buttons...even if it makes you hungry for bacon.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst (Bloomsbury, 2013).



Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of  Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst (Bloomsbury, 2013). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

New Voice: Amy Rose Capetta on Entangled

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Amy Rose Capetta is the first-time author of Entangled (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). From the promotional copy:

"Alone was the note Cade knew best. It was the root of all her chords."

Seventeen-year-old Cade is a fierce survivor, solo in the universe with her cherry-red guitar. Or so she thought. 

Her world shakes apart when a hologram named Mr. Niven tells her she was created in a lab in the year 3112, then entangled at a subatomic level with a boy named Xan.

Cade's quest to locate Xan joins her with an array of outlaws--her first friends--on a galaxy-spanning adventure. And once Cade discovers the wild joy of real connection, there's no turning back.

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?

My pre-contract revision process had two and a half stages. The first stage was me giving the manuscript to one reader, doing a three week slap-and-shine on the rough draft and declaring it done, definitely done, ready for the world, no more consideration, deliberation, deepening, polishing, hair-pulling, or english muffins for dinner.

Here was my reasoning: the story was going out into the world, where it would encounter agents and editors, who would smear their brilliance all over it.

Stage one and a half came less than twenty-four hours later when I went Wait, no, wait, I think that's wrong. It really was as dramatic as an all-caps parade. I walked around the winter-strangled streets of Chicago thinking No, seriously, don't send it out, it will come right back. And not with gold stars on it. It will come back in pieces, like you patted it gently in the direction of the nearest serial killer.

Cori (in black) and Amy Rose (in blue floral)
I have the good fortune to be friends with Cori McCarthy, the endlessly talented author of The Color of Rain (Running Press, 2013), who went through her first experience with the publishing process one step ahead of me. I e-mailed her, hoping for the magical fourteen-second turn-around.

Lo and behold! Fourteen seconds later: she told me not to panic submit.

As soon as I had a name for it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. I read a lot of fantasy. I believe in the power of names. And Panic Submit is not a pretty one.

Armed with this advice, I blocked off a few more months of my life, made peace with foaming a few thousand more lattes at Café Day Job, and moved on to step three.

I sat down. I made a list. Wait a second. I mean, I made The List. Because this was not a sedate, polite jotting-down of a few things I could do to nudge the manuscript into a generally better sort of shape. This was a wild feeding-frenzy of a list, a breathless collection of every single improve-able thing I could find—from structural issues to unfleshed secondary characters, right on down to metaphor overloads and words I love to use with the fire of a thousand redundant suns.

Then I sent the book back to its first reader, added three more, and stirred their own notes up with mine, mercilessly. When I sat down to work, The List was seventeen pages. Single spaced.

Amy Rose writing at Cyn's dining room table.
This comforted me.

This, I could do. Not easily, or quickly. But The List, for all of its slap-dash, idea-strewn, sprawling nature, gave me a real metric for the progress of my revision.

I think one of the main differences between drafting and revision is that when you draft, you have the metric in front of your face, all the time. Word count, page count, is this chapter done? Word count, write a hypothetical cyborg makeout scene (to emphasize: not an actual scene from the book), The End.

You have a manuscript! You win drafting!

But revising can feel so nebulous. It shouldn’t, because you’re finally out of uncharted waters.

Now you have to chart the waters—again! That shouldn’t be hard! But pinning things down, at least for me, is harder than locating their vague general area. When I crossed an item off that massive list, I knew I had pinned something, even a small something. And as the list dwindled I could see that I was actually, substantially improving my manuscript.

Step three was hard to commit to. It is also, I am sure, what got the manuscript agent offers.

My post-contract revision process was wonderful, and it was also a different sort of challenge. It brought me into contact with one of those brilliant editors I had dreamed of working with. Her story notes are light. Deceptively light. They look like faint brushstrokes of suggestion, which could trick a writer into thinking there’s not much work left to be done.

The worst thing I could do, as a writer, is believe that. Those brushstrokes always point in the direction of some serious digging. When I rise to the challenge of my editor’s notes, really look at the implications and possibilities, I end up with a much richer story.

As a science fiction writer, how did you go about building your world?

I had some of it swirling around in my head, gaining mass, before I started to write. I knew that my main character, Cade, lived on a desert planet. I knew that black holes were a source of endless rich weirdness, so I’d have to include one.

I felt a deep and abiding love for the spaceships in some of my favorite sci-fi stories, so I knew that my spaceship had to have character. What I didn’t know was how much character. She ended up stealing a lot of the scenes.

The central concept of quantum entanglement was there from the start; it slapped together the other aspects of the book in my head, like high concept superglue. I read about it and talked to Julia (my best friend and favorite scientist), and got all nerdily excited about this theory that particles (and therefore, maybe people) can break all of the laws of the universe, and communicate faster than the speed of light.

If it was strange enough to freak out Einstein, it’s interesting enough for me.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Amy Rose on Twitter, and don't miss Amy Rose and Cory in The NerdBait Guide!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Post: Shawn Stout on Writing About Talking About Writing Middle Grade (It Gets Worse from Here)

By Shawn Stout
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I’m really rubbish at a lot of things.

Athletics. Keeping plants alive. Singing.

Actually, I can sing without any problems, it’s just the sounding good part that I stink at.

Washing windows. How do you keep the tiny fuzz on the paper towels from getting stuck on the glass, anyway?

Never mind. I don’t really want to know.

Also, talking about writing. Don’t misunderstand, I love to hear other people, in particular my fellow VCFA-ers, talk about writing. They call it craft.

“Kraft?” I ask them. Because with this I am well-acquainted and could talk at length about a certain orange cheese that comes in a rectangle.

No, Shawn. Craft.

Oh. See? Rubbish.

So, when wonderfully talented and beautiful Cynthia Leitich Smith asked me to talk a little bit about writing middle grade books, I immediately said of course.

And then right after, I fetched a cold compress.

The thing is, I’ve written a couple of middle grade books. My sixth book is coming out in the middle of October, and thanks to the brilliant folks at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I have learned a lot about story and characters and plot and tension and arc and all kinds of other things.

But it’s the talking about writing part that makes me feel…well, like I’m playing dress up.

Because the truth is, each time I sit down to write, I get the overwhelming feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing and am put off balance when I actually get words on a page that start to tell a story. Somehow more words come. And then by some miracle more…until one day, what do you know, there’s a book. It’s magic.

But magic is not helpful, craft-type information, is it? No, I didn’t think so.

So, I went to the place that I often go to for answers to life’s tough questions: wikiHow. It’s the craftiest.

wikiHow’s entry “How to Write a Middle Grade Novel” gives step-by-step instructions on, you guessed it, how to write a middle grade novel.

Understand your audience, create a protagonist, come up with a fiendish plot…Okay, this isn’t helping so much. These are the basics, for certain, but they aren’t really any different from writing any other type of fiction, are they? They aren’t going to help me sound like an expert writer.

(On a side note, did you ever notice that the word expert looks really weird when you stare at it for a long time? Expert. Ex. Pert.)

Oh dear, if wikiHow can’t help me, who can?

This got me thinking. How do you become an expert writer, anyway?

When do you make the leap from don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-throwing-words-at-a-page-hoping-something-makes-sense writer to I’ve-solved-the-mysteries-of-the-written-word-and-I-can-comfortably-and-confidently-share-my-vast-knowledge-with-the-world writer?

Is it after awards have been won, after expectations of sales have been exceeded, after seven books have been published? Eight? Ten?

I don’t have the answers. Right now, I don’t know how I wrote my last book and am quite certain I won’t be able to write another. Despite having written and having been lucky enough to be published, I’m even more certain that I am not qualified to give advice on the subject.

Writers are playing against themselves in a game where there are no rules. And without rules, how do you know when you’ve won?

But maybe self-doubt is just one of those things that come with being creative. You know, things like addiction to tea, love of track suits, and obsession with cat videos on the Internet.

Maybe self-doubt has a part to play in all of this. Perhaps it is a necessity, along with a healthy balance of ego, serving to help us revise, improve, and stretch beyond expectations. Without self-doubt, wouldn’t there only be one draft? We’d call it brilliant, we’d call it expert, but really it would be rubbish.

So, maybe there are no true experts. Maybe a writer is always trying to be a writer, always learning, figuring out how to talk about writing. And trying not to be rubbish at it. But what do I know?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Event Report: Illumine 2013

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Thank you to the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation for recognizing my work in young adult writing at the 2013 Illumine benefit gala on Friday night at the downtown Hilton.

My appreciation to author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell for his gracious introduction!

Thanks also to the Austin youth literature community, Austin SCBWI, and the Writers’ League of Texas as well as my mentor, Kathi Appelt, and my husband, Greg Leitich Smith. I was surprised and touched by how many of our children's-YA book community members turned out--cheers to you all.

Congratulations to fellow honorees Steven Weinberg (nonfiction), Stephen Harrigan (fiction) and Carmel Borders (luminary) as well as the young writers from Badgerdog!

How lovely to be feted in such distinguished and inspiring company!

With authors Sarah Bird and Jennifer Ziegler
Austin SCBWI ARA Shelley Ann Jackson and RA Samantha Clark
With author Julie Lake, Shelley, Sam
With authors Hamilton Beazley & Kathi Appelt (my mentor!)
Author Brian Yansky & author-illustrator Frances Hill Yansky
University of Texas library prof. Loriene Roy & author Greg Leitich Smith
Mark & Julie
With author Ruth Pennebaker
Posing with the Illumine Award
Author Chris Barton with Kathi & Brian
With my date
Thanks again!


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