Friday, April 25, 2014

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Invisible by Dawn Metcalf (Harlequin Teen, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Some things lie beneath the surface.

Invisible.

With the power to change everything.

Joy Malone wants it all—power, freedom and the boyfriend who loves her. Yet when an unstoppable assassin is hired to kill her, Joy learns that being the girl with the Sight comes with a price that might be too high to pay. 

Love will be tested, lives will be threatened, and everyone Joy knows and cares about will be affected by her decision to stand by Ink or to leave the Twixt forever.
More News

Girls Reading: What Are They Seeing (Or Not Seeing)? by Kelly Jensen from Stacked. Peek: "The girls overwhelmingly noted that they've not seen themselves reflected in the books they've been assigned to read for school and whether or not female authors or female main characters they've been assigned have been memorable for them."

What to Do With a Franken Draft by Dianne K. Salerni from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "The first thing I suggest is outlining your book. Yes, outline it after you’ve written it and even if you had an outline before you started writing the thing. You may have had a plan, but what did you actually put into the manuscript?"

Why You and Me (Make That "I") Need a Copy Editor by Rosie Genova from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: "I edit for a living, which gives me a strong command of grammar and usage, as well as a sharp eye for the typo. But guess what? I still need a copy editor for my own work." See also Three When One Will Do by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com.

Writing Picture Books: Tips from the Top by Susan Hughes from Open Book Toronto. Peek: "...five well-known authors of award-winning picture books, Dan Bar-El, Ruth Ohi, Hazel Hutchins, Monica Kulling and Cary Fagan, generously share writing tips and suggestions."

Passion, Strengths & Uniqueness: Build a Writing Career by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "Why mess around writing mediocre pieces? Instead, find the one thing that you do best and no one else can match you."

Rules for Writing and Life by Jane Resh Thomas from The Storyteller's Inkpot. Peek: "Two manuscript pages is possible, even on a bad day, so write two pages, not thinking at all about their quality."

Attention Beginners! Don't Rush Your Writing by Tracey Adams from PubSmart. Peek: "They are in a terrible rush. They haven’t done their homework. Sometimes they don’t even have a full manuscript yet. And then, usually...nothing happens."

When You Sense Something is Wrong by Avi from WordCraft. Peek: "Sometimes you need to make a big change. As in life, so it is in writing: big changes are hard to make. What kind of changes? A fundamental shift in plot, character, ending, beginning, middle...."

Timing the Time Travel in Your Novel by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: "If your pre-time travel portion exists mostly to establish the current world so we can understand the psychological impact of leaving it, be quick about that task. However..."

Is It Okay to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material? by Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison from The New York Times. Peek: "Writers need to be careful about putting their children in memoir or in fiction, for the reason I’ve mentioned above. We’re their custodians."

Ditch the 10,000 Rule! Why Malcom Gladwell's Famous Advice Falls Short by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel from Salon.com. Peek: "Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts. It doesn’t feel like you’re on top of it. What you don’t sense in the moment is that this added effort is making the learning stronger."

Tip Sheet: Picture Books are for All Ages by Elizabeth Bluemle from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "The term 'picture book' simply refers to a book format in which art and text depend on one another for the full meaning of the book to emerge. Picture books span a wide range of intended ages. There are picture books for babies, picture books for just about every age of childhood, and picture books for adults."

Diversity in Children's-YA Publishing

Thoughts from a Scared, White Author on Diversity in Kid Lit from Lisa Schroeder. Peek: "I think the most important thing to remember is: it's okay to be afraid. Do it anyway."

Editing Across Culture by Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity. Peek: "...despite my best intentions, my predominantly white upbringing, educational background, and chosen profession have not adequately prepared me to be as racially and culturally sensitive as I would like."

Diversity in Children's Literature: The Search for Missing Characters (& Authors) of Color by Sayantani DasGupta at From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors. Peek: "When, in mid-March, an attendee at the the New York City Teen Author Book Festival asked why she had only seen one author of color speak all weekend, no one had a good answer for her."

See also Children's Literature: Apartheid or Just a General Lack of Color from 90.9wbur. It's a radio interview with Chris and Walter Dean Myers.Their respective recent articles in The New York Times (Walter's Where are the People of Color in Children's Books?) and Chris's The Apartheid of Children's Literature) have been much discussed of late. In the new radio interview, Walter says:

"I don't want my grandchildren to think of themselves only in terms of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement. I want them to have a full range of imaginative literature."

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win!

Teachers & Librarians! Don't miss the five-ARC middle-grade giveaway of Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life (Starscape/Macmillan, September 16, 2014) by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

Hooray! I have finished Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series). Feral Pride concludes nine novels (including two graphic novels) and three short stories set in the Tantalize-Feral universe.

Book 1 of Feral trilogy
Book 1 of Tantalize series
The earliest notes for Tantalize (Book 1 in the Tantalize series) are dated 2000, and Feral Pride will come out in spring 2015.

Yes, other books and shorts were released along the way, but these interlocking stories represent a major portion of my body of work and total 458,169 words. 

Whew! Let's pause on that number: 458,169. It's pushing a half million.

I thought about that this week as I read Incremental Effort by Jane Leback from Query Tracker. Peek:

"It sounds like a lot, but it's actually all about the incremental effort: one word at a time; one stitch at a time. One short story at a time. One submission at a time, one publication at a time. That's how you'll make a career."

What else? If you are interested in publishing or cats (or both), check out Editors: Wrangling Cover Art from Meanjin. It's informative and funny.

FYI: I read a nonfiction book published for grown-ups (shocking, I know)! Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss (Random House, 2013) is a thorough look at the processed foods industry. It's fascinating, well written, and you'll never look at the inside of a grocery store the same way again.

Kudos to Greg Leitich Smith on the rave review of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014) from School Library Journal: "An accessible and whimsical read, this should have wide appeal." Plus, "[t]he quirky setting and diverse characters add originality...."

My inner child will not be denied.

Dressed for Easter brunch at Crave in downtown Austin.
With Soman Chainani, Laini Taylor, John Corey Whaley & Margaret Stohl,at LA Times Festival of Books,
Thanks to my publisher, Candlewick Press, for the above photo (and for sponsoring me for the event)! The lighting in the auditorium is a bit odd, but at least you can see us all.

Personal Links


Cynsational Events

Varian, Jenny and Greg brainstorm launch ideas at House Pizzeria in Austin.
Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin.


Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award (deadline Monday!). See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New Voice: Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemic

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Yvonne Ventresca is the first-time author of Pandemic (Sky Pony, 2014)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Only a few people know what caused Lilianna Snyder's sudden change from a model student to a withdrawn pessimist who worries about all kinds of disasters. 

When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil’s worst fears are realized. 

With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak--her journalist father in Delaware covering the early stages of the disease and her mother in Hong Kong and unable to get a flight back to New Jersey--Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread fatal illness.

With friends and neighbors dying around her, Lil does everything she can to survive. 

Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door. 

Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but also her own personal demons.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

The premise of Pandemic is that a deadly, contagious bird flu strikes the U.S. and an emotionally traumatized teen needs to survive on her own. Most of my research focused on the logistics of a pandemic and its consequences.
Yvonne's blog

The deadliest influenza that Americans have experienced occurred in 1918, so I started my pandemic research in that era, with books like The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (Penguin Books, 2005) and Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni (TV Books, 1999).

I also read about current emerging infectious diseases in books like Spillover by David Quammen (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) and Secret Agents: Emerging Epidemics by Madeline Drexler (Penguin Books, 2010).

Many people don’t realize that we’ve lived through a recent pandemic that was highly contagious, but fortunately not exceedingly deadly. The H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic of 2009 is well-documented on the www.flu.gov website, so I started with that illness as a rough model for some aspects of my fictional disease.

Next, I needed to figure out how a pandemic experience today would differ from one a century ago. Because of airplane travel, for instance, diseases today spread much faster than 1918 when a rural town could try to isolate itself. I made a list of realistic complications that could occur and I worked many of those into the story. For example, what happens if we lose our electricity and all the service people are too sick to make repairs?

The story is set in New Jersey, and another source of information was government preparedness documents. I was surprised to find some plans online, like the state’s “Antiviral Distribution Plan.” I also found a 2005 Homeland Security Document, “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.”

Based on their planning assumptions, I tried to think about other complications. For example, many people think it is most likely that a pandemic would start someplace else, like Asia, and as a result the U.S. would have a warning period. What if that turned out to be untrue and we had little or no time to prepare?

I didn’t experience any roadblocks but had to fight the tendency to over-research. For example, I spent a lot of time checking the spring migratory flyways of waterfowl when I should have been writing instead. I have a whole folder on “Birds” research which I didn’t really use.

One of my best resources was an interview I did with a local health officer. I generally prefer to interview people by email or phone, but I met him in person in 2011. He spoke frankly about the H1N1 experience and gave me insight into what problems could potentially occur if a more deadly pandemic struck.

He also shared some local planning documents that were in the process of being updated based on what they learned from the H1N1 pandemic. It was educational and also inspired some ideas, like the news story Lil (the main character) sees about who should receive the antiviral first if supplies were limited.

Besides books, online searches, and interviews, I’m a big fan of automated news alerts through email. I used Google Alerts and Talkwalker (both free) to keep me updated on newsworthy items that I might have been able to incorporate into Pandemic.

As a result of all my research, I tend to wash my hands more than the average person.

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?

Yvonne's promotional files
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how to promote a book and reach readers. As I waited (with cautious optimism) to hear back from my editor about the acquisition of Pandemic, I started reading marketing books and articles. (I had been saving articles since 2005!)

One of my favorite marketing books is Everyday Book Marketing by Midge Raymond (Ashland Creek Press, 2013). From my research, I made a list of possible ideas, some of which I ultimately discarded, but many of which I’m using. I think of this debut book period as the time of saying “yes.”

As in, yes I will visit that library in the town I’ve never heard of to speak about Pandemic. Yes, I will submit proposals to be on faculty at SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences. And yes, I will bowl at an event with teen readers even though my bowling skills are non-existent.

I decided early in the process to hire a freelance publicist (Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations) to work with Sky Pony’s team to help promote the book. It’s been great to have her to help with the process, and she’s been an excellent source of knowledge and support. She’s been able to supplement Sky Pony’s efforts with activities like creating a press kit and reaching out to additional reviewers.

I’ve also joined an online group (UncommonYA) to support each other’s books, and a regional group (Kidlit Author’s Club) to do appearances together. It’s helpful to go through the promotion-journey with other writers.

In terms of concrete actions, I’ve developed postcards and bookmarks and swag. I created a mailing list of target libraries to let them know about Pandemic. Twitter (@YvonneVentresca) is my favorite social media, and I’ll be teaching twitter to writers at the New England SCBWI conference later in the spring.

I’ve stepped up my social media presence in general, and began blogging twice a week, with one post always geared toward teen writers. Revamping my website was gratifying as it evolved.

My other activities include guest blogging, planning my launch party, and participating in a few upcoming festivals.

My advice to other debut authors is to figure out what others are doing (through books, articles, or researching online), then do what is comfortable for you. If you like a certain form of social media better than others, focus on the one that doesn’t feel like a burden.

You should experiment, but don’t feel like you have to give the same level of commitment to every idea you try.

Overall, the promotion phase has been an enjoyable one for me. I like to think of it as a big experiment (although it’s hard to tell exactly what the results will be). I’ve created two lists to keep me sane: one of accomplishments, to keep track of what I get done each month, and one of acts of kindness, so I’ll remember all the wonderful things people have done to help me throughout this process.

Rocky and Luna in Yvonne's office--they keep her company and bark out the window.


Cynsational Notes

See additional resources on topics related to the novel such as pandemics, preparing for emergencies, and getting help for victims of sexual assault.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Trailer: Don't Call Me Baby! by Gwendolyn Heasley

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Don't Call Me Baby! by Gwendolyn Heasley (HarperTeen, 2014). From the promotional copy:

All my life, I've been known as the girl on that blog.

Do you know what it's like for everyone to think they know you because of what they read on some stupid website? My mother has been writing an incredibly popular, and incredibly embarrassing, blog about me since before I was born. The thing is, I'm fifteen now, and she is still blogging about me. In gruesome detail.

You can read my life as my mom tells it on mommyliciousmeg.com. But this story is my actual life and about what happened when my BFF Sage and I decided to tell the real truth about our lives under a virtual microscope. Thanks for reading . . . Just don't call me Babylicious.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Guest Post: Guadalupe Garcia McCall on Writing & Teaching Poetry

Cynthia and Guadalupe at Texas Book Festival
By Guadalupe Garcia McCall
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I love poetry, but not like other people love poetry. No.

I mean, I love poetry.

But it's not that I just love it, I think I actually need it. Just as nourishment, and sunlight, and oxygen sustain me—Poetry sustains me. Just as religion, and family, and nature center me—Poetry centers me. Just as writing, and reading, and teaching fulfill me—Poetry fulfills me.

One of my favorite things to do in my classroom is to bring in the poetry.

I love to share great poetry, like "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, "Patterns" by Amy Lowell, and many, many more greatly beloved gems from literature.

However, I also love to share my own poetry with my students. It makes the lesson more valid when I ask them to write, and they see that I am not asking anything of them that I don't ask of myself.

One of my favorite ways to sneak it in poetry is by tying it in with something that's part of my curriculum. It's actually the only way I get away with it these days...oh, how I long for a creative writing class where I can really cut loose and teach the art of writing, but that's a blog for another day!

I recently wrote a poem called, "With a Machete, My Father," from the point of view of the character of Nwoye in the novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). It wasn't anything spectacular or mind blowing. It was quite a simple little poem, really, but with that one little poem, I taught point of view, poetic structure (including the "twist" at the end) and figurative language like imagery, symbolism, foreshadowing, personification, simile, etc.

As a follow up, I asked students to write a response poem to Nwoye from any other character's point of view in the novel. They really got into the assignment, it was like we were having a dialogue on paper—a poem from them in response to a poem from me in another character's point of view.

Complex and challenging, but fun and uniquely their own!

That's what poetry is for me, and that's what I want my students to discover—a unique, fun way to involve themselves and address poetry in a natural way, a way that speaks about their point of view as they explore literature, nature (including human nature), and life.

Here's a look at that little poem for those of who are interested:

"With a Machete, My Father"

Cut him down, severed the tie
That pulls a man away from himself.

So that he might be seen as
Strong, my father ended my brother’s life.

Ikemefuna’s voice called out.
For help he called, confused, bewildered.

Sunlight filtered through the leaves
of our forest, like an ancestral spirit, witnessing.

It glinted off his blade. Metal moved
quick as lightning, loud as thunder, wet as rain.

I did not see Ikemefuna in death, but I
Felt his shadow walking quietly behind my father.

When he entered his obi, my father
Did not speak, but sat down to drink palm wine.

I know why Okonkwo mourns.
It must be hard, to lose two sons in one day.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall, February 2014

Another one of my favorite ways to share, discuss, and explore poetry is to bring in excerpts from a small collection of nature poems I have entitled, "On Prairie Road."

I've been working on this collection for years. It's nowhere near finished, and I suspect I won't ever be finished with it because these poems come to me when I least expect them. They are little moments of truth that just hit me when I sit on my porch or meander around my property to stir and wake the poetic voice.

They are bits of life, mine and the world around me, and thus, I suspect, they will always be a work in progress.

I use these short little nature poems, these visceral snapshots, to teach theme.

I give my students a handout with three or four poems from the collection. I never know which ones I'll use because I always try to tie them in with the literature we are reading at the time.

When I first ask students to read them, it's a cold read, not really tied in to the book or story we're working with.

"Just read," I say. "Try to figure out what it means...what the poet was thinking...why she wrote it."

(I usually don't tell them I wrote the poems unless they ask if they are mine. Then I don't lie, I say, "Yes, it's part of something I'm working on," and we move on to the lesson).

After they do the cold read, I ask them to think about theme: What is the message behind the poems, what is the author trying to tell you about life? We discuss the first one together; we stir the mud using the well known SIFT strategy (Symbols, Imagery, Figurative Language, and Theme) to try to get to the bottom of it. When we all agree on a theme, we write it down beside the poem, quoting textual evidence, of course, to tie it to the novel/story we are reading.

Next, I ask a student to read the second poem to the class. This time, they talk to their elbow partner and try to SIFT through the poem together to find the theme. When everyone has a theme written down, we share and try to come to consensus as to the theme that best relates to the novel/story.

As a third stage of the lesson, the students read the last poem by themselves, SIFT through the poem, find a theme of their own and relate it to the novel/story.

As a follow up, students write their own nature poems to try to relate the theme of the novel/story we are reading to the class.

Once again, we have that dialogue on paper, that back and forth sharing of point of view and ideas between author, teacher, and students—only this time they see that they can find courage and wisdom in nature, and in their own observations of nature and the world around them, to make connections to the text.

This lesson always works because most nature poems are universal enough to fit any novel or story. I can usually find several to match whatever literary piece we are reading at the time.

Before I started writing my own, I used a number of nature poems I loved, anything from well known nature poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay to contemporary poets like Wendy Barker was food for my classroom.

In any event, here are the three poems I used with Things Fall Apart for those of you who might be interested:

"On the Grass"
by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Two eager grackles walk on stilts.
Raven heads held high. Their golden
Eyes astute, foraging for generous
Seeds to feast upon.

Then, a grub worm, fat and slippery,
Clutched in a black bird’s claw, ripped apart,
Torn open, devoured by one who knows
Its creamy, yellow guts are more substantial.

"Along the Barbed Wire Fence"
by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

An oak has matured. Its golden heart
Pierced by the barbed wires of the
Barricade it has engulfed. Four lines of
Barbaric fencing, swallowed up, imprisoned

Within one hundred rings of bark. The
Anchoring posts push, pull, tug with
The passing seasons, but the oak is stoic,
Unmoved, its heavy trunk incorrigible.

"Across the Road"
by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Cows migrate in unison, slowly, quietly,
Plowing against the forceful rains. Heads
Hung low, shoulders determined,
Eyes to the ground, as if in prayer.

They do not wait for the waters to rise,
The lip of the creek to curl up cynically,
Swallow them up, drag them downstream,
They walk steadily, calmly, don’t look back.

Using poetry, our own or anybody else's, to make connections within and across texts is a fun, easy way to expose students to poetry and its value—not only in literature but also in life.

Exposing students to poetry, its depth and beauty, its relationship to the world we inhabit and the way we live and learn, is one of the best things we can do for our students. It goes beyond educating them—hopefully, it leads them to a love of poetry and a true appreciation of it.

Who's to say? It might even someday sustain them.

Cynsational Notes

Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low, 2011), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist and received the Ellen Hopkins Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2011 among many other honors and accolades.

Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu, 2012), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction Award, was an Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist, and was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year.

Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals across the country and abroad, and her poems for children are included in The Poetry Friday Anthology (2012), The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (2013), and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (2014), all by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.

Guadalupe was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems).

She is currently a high school English teacher in the San Antonio area and lives in Somerset with her husband, Jim, two (of three) sons, Steven and Jason, two dogs (Baxter and Blanca), and one cat (Luna).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Guest Post: Author-Editor Deborah Halverson on Setting, Wherefore Art Thou?

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When Cynthia graciously invited me to write a guest post for her blog, she asked if there was a particular writing craft item on my mind. Indeed, there is. And its color is blue.

Blue screen, that is. The kind they use in movie making when they film actors against a blank blue screen and then Cg in the background.

During a blue-screen shoot, the cameras capture the characters delivering their dialogue and action, but they don’t capture the setting. There is none. It’s just blue nothingness.

The scene doesn’t come fully alive until the special effects people go in and add the setting. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something I call “bluescreening” in young adult manuscripts.

I’ve been editing teen/tween manuscripts for more than fifteen years, acting as a bridge between writers and their readers, doing my best to ensure that the story the writer wants to tell is the story that reaches her readers.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed an increasing dearth of setting in the manuscripts crossing my desk. Writers are focusing on voice and plot and character arcs, and on fresh, marketable hooks—and rightly so, as these are all integral storytelling elements.

But our poor little friend, Setting . . . she’s barely there. Such a powerful storytelling tool, yet so overlooked of late. Why? What’s happened? Where did setting go?

These days writers are working their tails off to satisfy the increasingly strong call for action and faster-paced plots, with an accompanying call for characters who can shoulder that.

In the process, setting—the quiet workhorse of stories—is being short-changed. The characters are dropped in a location—a room, a park, wherever—and then it’s “Onward, ho!” to the action and the dialogue.

Where’s the sense of place? Where’s the feeling that this scene could happen nowhere else but here? Where’s the full reading experience?

Too often, I feel like I’m watching a movie for which the special affects crew has forgotten to generate the background, leaving the characters walking and talking in front of that vast blue nothingness.

That’d be a pretty big boo-boo in a feature film, wouldn’t it? So, too, in a novel.

Think about the YA/middle grade novels we love.

Without setting, we wouldn’t have Beetle’s warm, moiling dung heap sheltering us from the frosty night in Karen Cushman’s Newbery Medal-winning The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion, 1995).

We wouldn’t have the terrifying frozen beauty of The North in Philip Pullman’s bestseller The Golden Compass (Knopf, 2006).

We wouldn’t have Kathi Appelt’s National Book Award Finalist The Underneath at all (Atheneum, 2008).

We need setting in our stories. We need the richness that makes up setting, the sensual engagement that can only come from hearing the crunch of frosty grass under the protagonist’s bare feet, or feeling the sudden whispery kiss of a spider’s web dangling from the eaves. We’d just have a girl walking across a lawn and a creepy old house. Where’s the joy in that?

The lovely thing is, lack of setting is an easy boo-boo to fix. And when you bang that nail into place, the overall effect on the manuscript is substantial.

If you write teen/tween novels, take a look at your current work-in-progress. Is it all action and dialogue? Or have you given us enough sensory detail to fill out the space around the characters?

I’m not saying go all Henry James on your audience. Heavens, no! Few can stomach such long-winded descriptions of setting. Certainly not your average teen reader.

Instead of describing or simply naming your setting, show your character interacting with elements of it, manipulating those elements or reacting to them. Give us the sounds and smells and textures and temperatures and sensations that distinguish that particular place by having your character hearing them, smelling them, and feeling them.

Along the way, you will enrich your entire story because:

* setting influences and illuminates characterization

Imagine one character finding solace in the songs of mockingbirds on a flower-covered (and floral-scented) mountaintop, while his friend hunkers under a freeway overpass and loses himself in the sounds of the traffic, the vibrations of the ground, and the fumes of a world too busy to notice him.

* setting figures directly into plot

A dingy, mud-caked window screen blocks a character’s view of a fight outside. He faces a choice: ignore the fight, or leave the safety of his house to watch it—or to stop it.

* setting influences characters’ word choice

Trip-slipping on the gritty asphalt crumbs of a dilapidated road blurred by heat waves…. Tromping through biting snowdrifts…. Both can put foul words into the mouths of saints!

* setting affects pacing and tension

Compare the discomfort of feeling the flesh of strangers’ arms, shoulders, even cheeks, as a character shoves through a busy train station with the caress of a cool breeze on the character’s cheek as he wiggles his toes into the powdery sand of an empty beach.

* setting provides subtext and ambiance

Catholic school vs. public school, anyone? Oh, the sensory details that distinguish each of those settings.

Above all, characters need a sense of place to know how to behave. Don’t just give them somewhere to be; show how that particular place influences their mood and actions. You chose that setting for a reason, mine it so that readers can feel that sense of place for themselves.

For your audience, a rich setting is the difference between watching characters and being there with them. For you, it means more meaningful and satisfying scenes. Improving your use of setting is a win-win deal—and that’s certainly nothing to feel blue about.

Cyn & Deborah with her sons
Cynsational Notes

This post was originally published in June 2010. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn's revision deadline.

Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me (2007) and Big Mouth (2008)(both Delacorte/Random House) as well as Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Wiley), Letters to Santa (available via the USPS) and Cyber World, Meltdown and Robotic World (Rubicon's REMIX series).

She edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Books for ten years before leaving to write books full-time.

Deborah lives with her husband and triplet sons in San Diego, California, where she also runs her writers’ advice website Dear-Editor.com and freelance edits fiction and nonfiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals.
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