Monday, March 05, 2018

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school's Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 

Sasha is sure they'll be the best. And she's even more confident that her secret plan -- to tell Kevin about her crush on him -- will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she's overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 

When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.
In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.

Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 

My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney's book party
I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 

When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 

You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 

Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!
  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 

Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes "full of humor and silly mishaps...A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection."

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.

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