Friday, January 09, 2009

Cynsations Winter Hiatus

Cynsations will be on hiatus from hereafter until sometime after Jan. 23 while I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults winter 2009 residency.

I look forward to teaching with fellow faculty members Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Alan Cumyn, Sharon Darrow, Sarah Ellis, Ellen Howard, Uma Krishnaswami, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, Martine Leavitt, Leda Schubert, Shelley Tanaka, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

Uma is leading the picture book program; Carolyn Coman will be our writer-in-residence, and Jean Gralley is our guest author/illustrator.

Our graduate assistants will be Sarah Aronson, Marianna Baer, Carrie Jones, Erin Moulton, and Zu Vincent.

Elizabeth Bluemle's The Flying Pig Bookstore, Bear Pond Books, and Rivendell Books will be hosting the book sale.

Cynsational Notes

Fifth Annual Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts will be March 27 to March 29. Featuring: author Kathi Appelt; author Elise Broach; and editor Cheryl Klein of Scholastic. Includes: lectures; organized workshops; writing exercises; one-on-one critiques with one of the guest authors; one-on-one critique with guest editor (extra fee); open mike; discussions; room and board. Cost: $450. Registration begins Dec. 1. For more information, contact Sarah Aronson.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Author Jama Rattigan on 15 Years of Dumpling Soup (Little, Brown)! To celebrate Jama is giving away three signed hardcover copies. Peek: "These are original trade editions from my personal stash (currently, only paperback and library editions are still in print." Enter to win between now and Jan. 31. See more information. Don't miss the story behind the story. Note: Dumpling Soup was illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders.

"Meeting" the Author by Melissa Stewart from I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "Seeing someone on screen isn't quite as powerful as a live visit, but videos are a great option for schools that lack the time, resources, or funding to bring in authors and illustrators. They're also a great way for any school to increase their students' exposure to book creators."

The Educational Paperback Association (EPA) yesterday announced that Kevin Henkes is the winner of the 30th annual Jeremiah Ludington Award. The Ludington Award, named after the EPA’s founder, is presented annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the paperback book business. Past winners have included Mary Pope Osborne, Seymour Simon, Tomie dePaola, Anita Silvey, Richard Peck, Lois Lowry and Paula Danziger. Recipients receive a framed certificate and the EPA presents a $2500 check to the charity of their choice.

2009 Coretta Scott King Awards? from Kyra at Black Threads in Kid Lit. Peek: "Do a blog search - is there any chatter on mock Coretta Scott King Awards for 2009? ...I have not been able to find any, so decided to start a thread given the awards are coming out later this month." Note: chime in on the discussion of 2008's best in African-American children's-YA Literature. Note: Books I highlighted were Coe Booth's Kendra (Push), Varian Johnson's My Life as a Rhombus (Flux)(author interview), and Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper's Becoming Billie Holiday (Wordsong)(author interview).

Artist's Agents 101 by Kathy Rietz from The Prairie Wind: Newsletter of the SCBWI Illinois Chapter. Peek: "Artist agents know the business and have connections at publishing houses that most illustrators do not." See also Diane Foote Reveals ALSC's Secrets; peek: "All eligible books are considered to be 'under consideration' until the decision is made. The decision is made by a voting process at the Midwinter meeting; if a clear winner is not determined in the first round of voting..." Note: Diane is the executive director of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

The WD Interview: Megan McCafferty by Lauren Mosko from Writer's Digest. Peek: "...if I wrote the book with enough humor and heart and intelligence, it would appeal not only to girls who are still in high school, but also to those who graduated years ago and have a fondness for teen angst."

Rickey E. Pittman: official site of the author of Jim Limber Davis: A Black Orphan in the Confederate White House and Stories of the Confederate South (both Pelican). Peek: "Rickey E. originally from Dallas." "After moving to Monroe, Louisiana...he was commissioned to write historical plays for Franklin (1997) and Madison (1998) parishes. In addition to freelance journalism, editing, and nonfiction writing, he has published short stories, poetry, and three books."

Behind Some Authors Lies a Ghost by Dianne Sagan from Writing for Dollars. Peek: "Ghostwriters must write in the client's voice. This can be a challenge. How do you write in someone else's voice?" See also Questions and Answers with Dianne Sagan from Karen and Robyn - Writing for Children.

A Few Things I've Learned About Writing for Children's Magazines by David L. Roper from KidLit Central. Peek: "As is the case with all writing, it is easier to sell nonfiction than fiction. To break into a new children's magazine market, consider first submitting an article, craft idea, or other nonfiction item."

Congratulations to Jerry Wermund on Soil: More Then Just Dirt (Rockon, 2008). From the promotional copy: "In dry, wet and moderate climates, heat and cold as well as natural acids break down rocks into soil. Water seeps downward altering soil into different layers and structures. Soil is alive. Many visible and microscopic creatures make homes in upper soil layers. Soil sustains life for plants. Nitrogen from the air as well as phosphorous and potassium from rocks enter soil to fertilize the roots of healthy grasslands, forests and crops. Soil scientists recognize twelve orders or types of soil." Note: Jerry is the rare self-publishing success story, because of the quality of his poetry, the cross-curriculum value of his books, his commitment to first-rate production, and his overall professionalism. Read a Cynsations interview with Jerry.

Revision Questions from Cynthia Lord. Peek: "Can I make this stronger, deeper, more vivid, without sacrificing pacing?" Source: Lisa Schroeder. Read a Cynsations interview with Cynthia.

Meet Vicki Palmquist, Co-founder of The Children's Literature Network from Julie Bowe at Kidlit Central News. Peek: "One of the services CLN provides is to provide recommendations and referrals. We are frequently asked by teachers, librarians, booksellers, and the media for information about our members. We participate in preparing reading lists and providing referrals for magazines, newspapers, and websites. Teachers and parents ask for suggestions for authors and illustrators to visit their schools. Media specialists ask for help in preparing specialized reading lists." Learn more about the Children's Literature Network.

Enter to win the January book giveaways at TeensReadToo.

J. Jaye Smith: author of Batty About Texas, illustrated by Kathy Coates (Pelican). From the publisher: "Jaye Smith spent her childhood in Slidell, Louisiana, and found her passion in the creative arts while still in high school. She attended Belmont University and graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in elementary education in 1993. Smith has worked as a vocalist and a music teacher for most of her life and is also an accomplished songwriter. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family and spends her free time reading, dancing, and gardening."

Congratulations to Gwenda Bond for signing with Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and congratulations to Jennifer on signing Gwenda. Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.

Best Advice for Aspiring Writers... from Ally Carter at Ally's Diary. Peek: "Is this cruel, cruel advice? Yes. But believe me I wouldn't be opening myself up for the onslaught of angry comments that might commence if I didn't think it were true."

Middle Grade Fantasy Books: a bibliography compiled by Stacy Whitman.

Layne Johnson: the illustrator of numerous books for children, including Farmer George Plants a Nation (Cawkins Creek, 2008), which received a starred review from School Library Journal, A Young Man's Dance (Boyds Mills, 2006), Christmas for a Kitten (Albert Whitman, 2003), and Where Horses Run Free (Boyds Mills, 2003). Layne is a native Houstonian.

The Evolution of Identity (for illustrators) from Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Peek: "Coming from a graphic design background (as I did), I used to think the opposite. 'Isn't it good to show you're flexible, that you are capable of many different looks and can help a publisher with different needs?' The answer is no."

Meet Saundra Mitchell! from Sara McLean. Peek: "Screenwriting says if I've spent more than five minutes in a particular scene, I'm boring people. It's easy for me to get in and get out, which I think is hard for some novelists."

The Seven Deadly (Publishing) Sins from Waxman Literary Agency. Peek: "These seven no-nos will put your career on ice faster than you can say 'remainder.'" Source: Elizabeth Scott's Blog.

Children's Author Dori Hillestad Butler: official author site features information on Dori and her books, classroom resources, and information for aspiring writers. Dori writes children's books, magazine pieces, and for the educational market. She also edits for Storydog and has a regular book review column in her local paper. Dori is based in Coralville, Iowa. Her books include The Truth About Truman School (Albert Whitman, 2008), My Grandpa Had a Stroke, illustrated by Nicole Wong (Magination, 2007), and F Is For Firefighting, illustrated by Joan C. Waites (Pelican, 2007).

Predicting Success by Robin LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "It turns out that creative success is a very elusive beast, and that it often has less to do with quality and more to do with reaching a certain tipping point in terms of generating buzz and getting talked about." Read a Cynsations interview with Robin.

Writing process...writing practice from Helen Hemphill at Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "Practice is about getting better. It's about doing, analyzing, and critiquing. But it's also about reflecting. What am I doing to sabotage my story? How can I write this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter better?" Also features a video interview with Anne Lamont. Read a Cynsations interview with Helen.

Marc Aronson's Unsettled: a podcast from Heidi Estrin at The Book of Life. Mark talks about the advantages of non-fiction, the current and future prospects for non-fiction, as well as passion and process in non-fiction writing. Then he focuses on his latest book, Unsettled (Ginee Seo, 2008). Note: "Marc Aronson is an editor, a publisher, and an author of historical nonfiction for young people. He writes the 'Nonfiction Matters' column in School Library Journal, and also hosts the Nonfiction Matters blog on the SLJ website." Read a Cynsations interview with Marc.

The Book Roast: a free promotional site for authors dedicated to celebrating great books. "Our mission is to help publicize books of all genres, printed by publishers of all sizes (excluding self-published and pornography). We serve up a variety of authors and books lightly grilled and seasoned with humor. The interactive and party spirit on our site helps set us apart." Note: The Book Roast returns from hiatus on Jan. 12. Guests marinating include Barrie Summy (Jan. 15) and Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford (Jan. 22).

Let the Drawing Begin: a contest for kids from K-6 grades to draw the perfect bookmark, sponsored by BookKids at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: "This year our theme is 'Be Independent.' Then, we print up the top entry in each of four age categories and distribute the bookmarks in the store for the rest of the year. Winners also receive a $25 gift certificate to BookPeople." See details.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin (Dial, 2008): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: "a thought-provoking read that offers engaging characters and suspense..." Read a Cynsations interview with Nancy.

Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009) ARC Giveaway from author Cindy Pon. Peek: "please respond in the comment section with your favorite Chinese dish!" Deadline Jan. 12. See details.

Tips on Starting a Book Club by Little Willow from SparkNotes. Peek: "Before your first meeting think about what kind of questions can get the conversation going and keep it going."

Congratulations to the winners and honorees of the 2009 Sydney Taylor Book Awards! The awards are given by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Source: Jewish Books for Children with Author Barbara Bietz. Note: watch Cynsations for more on the Sydney Taylor Awards!

Blockbuster or Bust: Why struggling publishers will keep placing outrageous bids on new books by Anita Elbers from the Wall Street Journal. Peek: "When a publisher spends an inordinate amount on an acquisition, it will do everything in its power to make that project a market success. Most importantly, this means supporting the book with higher-than-average marketing, advertising and distribution support..." Source: April Henry.

Where The Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown, June 2009): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: "graceful and profound." Read a Cynsations interview with Grace.

On Getting Published by Justine Larbalestier. Peek: "They seem to not hear the part about spending twenty years trying to get into print. Twenty years, people!" Read a Cynsations interview with Justine.

What Inspires Your Writing? from Little Willow at Slayground. Peek: "I asked authors to name books they recently read and enjoyed as well as their favorite classic and contemporary authors. 'Tell me whose books you devoured as a kid,' I said, 'or whose novels you collect now as an adult.' I also asked each author whose writing career he or she would most like to emulate." Check out answers from Kelly Parra, Linda Joy Singleton, Jo Knowles, Micol Ostow, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and more!

Early Bird ARC Giveaway from the Class of 2k9. Peek: "We're giving away five great ARCs to one lucky person." Featured titles are: Freaked by J.T. Dutton (Harper)(signed); Jane In Bloom by Deborah Lytton (Dutton)(signed); When The Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton (Philomel)(signed); Heart Of A Shepherd by Rosanne Parry (Random House); and Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott (Marshall Cavendish). Deadline: Jan. 24.

Smithsonian Notable Books for Children 2008 by Kathleen Burke of Highlights include The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills); That Book Woman by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum); Shifty by Lynn E. Hazen (Ten Speed/Tricycle), and A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Scholastic). Source: Chicken Spaghetti.

Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Acceptance by Sherman Alexie from The Horn Book. Peek: "What I learned from my experience is that pretty much every teenager out there, regardless of class or race or culture or geography, feels pretty dang isolated and pretty dang misunderstood. And more than anything they feel this pressure — by their tribe, whatever their 'tribe' is, by their class, by their families — to be a certain something." See the 2008 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature. Source: Wild Rose Reader.

Boys Reading About Girls by Donna Bowman Bratton at Simply Donna. Peek: "I've spent a great deal of time as a library volunteer and substitute librarian at my son's school. Boys love nonfiction. There's no dispute about that. But, I regularly see boys older than E choosing female-centered books like Judy Moody along with a book about NASCAR." Note: Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) has a female protagonist (and my Gothics are all arguably feminist), but I do get regular reader male from YA boys. The gender difference in the correspondence is generally related to length and directness. Girls tend to write longer, more personal letters. Boys tend to get right to the point. My favorite: "When is the sequel coming out? What is taking you so long? What are you doing with your time?"

Home Schooling Grows in Popularity by Janice Lloyd of USA Today. Peek: "The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007, up 74% from when the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003. The percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007." Source: Public Education Network.

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill (Greenwillow, 2009): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: "warm, funny, and full of grace."

Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young(Little Brown 2008): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: "an altogether lovely and elegant picture book." Read a Cynsations interview with Ed Young.

Attention Teachers and Librarians: subscribe to Fran Cannon Slayton's monthly Children's Book Newsletter to win 30 advance copies of When the Whistle Blows (Philomel, June 2009) for your school or classroom! Drawing to be held Dec. 15, 2009.

Reader's Choice Best YAs of 2008: chime in with your favorites at the YA Authors Cafe.

The Children's Book Council 2009 Teen Book Awards from Peek: "In association with the Children's Book Council (CBC), is giving you a very special opportunity to let your voices be heard by telling us your five favorite books of 2008. The five titles that receive the most 'votes' will serve as the finalists for the CBC's 2009 Teen Choice Book Award." Note: there's still time to nominate more of 2008's best books. Source: professornana.

You are cordially invited to attend...a Royal Tiara Auction to benefit "essential teen programs" at the New York Public Library. Until Jan. 31, tiaras decorated by such celebrities as R. L. Stine, Chris Van Allsburg, Judy Blume, Marc Brown, Meg Cabot, and Sarah Dessen (as well as various famous designers, actors, royals, media outlets, etc.) will be available for bidding in celebration of Meg Cabot's Forever Princess (HarperCollins). Note: definitely check out the tiaras, consider making a bid, and share the link--it's a great cause! Source: Cynthia Lord.

See below for a book trailer celebrating Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Delacore, 2009), which Publishers Weekly calls, "An intimate and absorbing drama."

Online Classes

Writing Children's Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market from Laura Purdie Salas. Peek: " will learn about the educational market and how it differs from the trade market. You will learn how to put together an introductory packet to send to publishers. We'll work on the various components of that packet so that by the end of the month, you have packets ready to pop in the mail." Class runs from Jan. 26 to March 20. See details.

Matchmaking Your Manuscript: from Laura Purdie Salas and Lisa Bullard. Peek: Do you have a children's book manuscript ready to submit? Are you feeling overwhelmed? The children's book universe can appear impenetrable to unpublished writers. This six-week online course will give you the knowledge and confidence to create a submission plan for your manuscript (and your future manuscripts). Laura and Lisa will guide you step-by-step through the submissions process and show you how to improve your chances of publication. Includes a critique of your cover letter or query letter.

More Personally

Amazing, surprising news! I heard this week from my genius editor that Eternal (Candlewick, Feb. 10, 2009) is going into a second printing. A huge thanks to y'all for your continued support!

It also was an honor to see Eternal included in "My Favorites of 2008" from Karin's Book Nook. If you're a fantasy fan, take a look at her great list!

If you want me to see a post related to Eternal, please email me with the link. (I do not do Google Alerts as I've observed that they lead to insanity). Thank you!

I'm off to the Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency and don't expect to be back in the saddle, work-wise, in Austin until Jan. 26. I will do my best to check email while I'm in Vermont; however, if you could hold off on non-critical messages until I return, that would be helpful.

Business Notes

The giveaway of Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Holt, 2008) went to John in Texas! Read a Cynsations interview with Elise. Note: giveaways will resume when I return, beginning with one featuring the ARC for Eternal (Candlewick, Feb. 10, 2009).

From link submissions, I could tell this week that many authors included "promote my website" among their new year's resolutions. See information on submitting an official author/illustrator site for consideration.

Reminder: Submitting a children's/YA book to Cynsations? Please don't write a "pitch" letter (per the instructions on my site) as I can't respond individually to thousands of these a year. Instead, see the submissions guidelines to decide whether your book is a fit. Likewise, please don't send requests to confirm receipt or notes to update me on the progress of your book. Thanks, and good luck!

Austin Area Events (Cyn and Friends)

Writing For The Mass Markets: My Publishing Boot Camp With Jennifer Ziegler at 11 a.m. Jan. 10 at BookPeople, sponsored by Austin SCBWI. "Discover what you can learn from writing for the mass markets. How does it differ from writing trade novels? Can it help or hurt your career? Will it improve your craft? Will it help you make valuable connections? Most importantly, will your literary friends and associates still want to hang out with you? Jennifer Ziegler, an Austin-based author and former English teacher, has been writing teen novels for twelve years – many of them for mass market YA series. One of them, Alias: Recruited (Bantam, 2002), made the New York Times' Bestseller List for children's chapter books. Her trade novels include How Not to be Popular (Delacorte, 20089)(author interview), and Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)(author interview) which was a finalist for the 2007 Teddy Award." Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will be speaking on "First Drafts" at the February monthly meeting of the Writers' League of Texas at 7:30 Feb. 19 at the League office in Austin (611 S. Congress Avenue).

Cynthia will visit the YA book club at the Cedar Park (Texas) Public Library at 11 a.m. May 30.

More of Cyn's Events

Due to a technical difficulty, Cynthia's discussion of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), Eternal (Candlewick, 2009), and related forthcoming books on the teen grid of Teen Second at Second Life has been rescheduled for 3 p.m. Feb. 24. See more information.

Cynthia will be speaking on "Writing and Illustrating Native American Children's Literature" (with S. D. Nelson) and "Monsters and Magic: Writing Gothic Fantasy Novels for Teenagers" on March 15 at the Tucson Festival of Books.


Cynsational Books of 2008 from Cynthia Leitich Smith at Cynsations. See also 10th Anniversary Feature: Cynthia Leitich Smith. Note: in case you missed the original posts. Peek: "It helps that I don't limit myself to books that I initially thought of as 'my kind of thing.' By reading broadly, my tastes and knowledge base have expanded."

Take a Chance on Art: purchase one or more $5 raffle tickets to enter to win illustrator Don Tate's painting "Duke Ellington," and support the Texas Library Association Disaster Relief Fund. Note: it's especially important this year in light of devastation caused by Hurricane Ike. To learn more, read interviews with TLA librarian Jeanette Larson and illustrator Don Tate.

Fifth Annual Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts will be March 27 to March 29. Featuring: author Kathi Appelt; author Elise Broach; and editor Cheryl Klein of Scholastic. Includes: lectures; organized workshops; writing exercises; one-on-one critiques with one of the guest authors; one-on-one critique with guest editor (extra fee); open mike; discussions; room and board. Cost: $450. Registration begins Dec. 1. For more information, contact Sarah Aronson.

Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts: "Have you always wanted to write a young adult or middle grade novel for children, but have not carved out the time to get it done? Do you have a draft of a novel written, but are looking for ideas and strategies to revise and strengthen it? Would you like the chance to meet with an editor or an agent to pitch your novel and gain critical feedback about this novel in particular and the fiction market, in general? All of this is possible if you attend..." Features authors Elaine Marie Alphin, Darcy Pattison, editor Jill Santopolo, and agent Stephen Barbara. See more information.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Publisher Interview: Jon Bard on Children's Book Insider and

Jon Bard on Jon Bard: "I'm from New York originally, but I've been in Colorado since 1993. Out here, that pretty much makes you a native!

"When Laura and I first met, I owned a PR agency in New York, and she was working for the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I wasn't really enjoying the PR world, and the corporate side of publishing wasn't for Laura [Backes], so we were both ready for a change.

"Everywhere we went, whenever Laura told someone she worked in children's publishing, we heard the same response: 'I've always wanted to write a children's book; how do I do it?'

"That led to a lightbulb moment: why not start a business teaching people exactly how to do it? In May 1990, we published the first issue of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers, and we've been going strong ever since."

Learn more about Children's Book Insider and

What first inspired you to take an interest in children's book writers?

Children's books are Laura's passion, and they've become mine. Helping people get started as children's book writers translates directly into more excellent books for kids to read. That's certainly the best by-product of our business.

Beyond that, we simply love children's writers. Taken as a whole, they're a happy, optimistic, creative and friendly lot and it makes life a good deal more pleasant if that's your customer base.

Could you share some of the history behind Children's Book Insider?

As I mentioned before, the newsletter began in 1990. Our next big advance happened in 1995, when we went online with We started the children's writing mailing list (which has since morphed into the huge Children's Writing Yahoo Group) in 1997, and we kicked off our free e-zine (The Children's Writing Update) in 1998. We now have more than 43,000 subscribers to the Update.

Our most recent addition is our blog, The Children's Writing Web Journal, and we've started a regular podcast (you can find it at the blog) Also, Laura is the co-founder of the Children's Author's Bootcamp workshops.

I remember receiving my first copy of CBI in the late 1990s! For those new to it, could you offer an overview of the newsletter and how to subscribe?

There are really two main elements to the newsletter--market news and instruction.

The market news in our "At Presstime" section is never cribbed from other sources. It's stuff that we uncover. It's getting harder for writers to find publishers that accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts, so people really rely on us for leads.

The rest of the newsletter is straightforward "how-to." We generally don't do broad overviews or touchy-feely stuff. Our reputation is for providing writers with information that they can use immediately to improve their writing and increase their chances of getting published.

You're also at! What does the site have to offer?

The site offers tons of free articles, plus a message board and our blog, The Children's Writing Web Journal.

What other resources do you offer?

Over the years, we've published a large number of how-to books, lots of eBooks, a DVD and other goodies for children's writers, covering almost every imaginable aspect of building a writing career. They're all at Exclusive Tools for Success.

Who else on your team should we know about?

None of this would have happened without the knowledge and perseverance of my wife, Laura Backes. She has amazing insight into the writing process and a fantastic ability to teach what she
knows. She's the real star of CBI. I just stuff the envelopes.

As a reader, what are some of your favorite children's books you've read recently why?

I'll let Laura answer this one, as she has impeccable taste!


The Long Night of Leo and Bree by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon Pulse, 2003)(author interview). An intense story of two 18-year-olds brought together by a violent event. The author alternates viewpoints beautifully.

Specials by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2006)(author interview) The third book in the Uglies sci-fi trilogy. Westerfeld's Peeps (Razorbill) is another excellent read--a cool vampire book.

Fat Kid Rules the World
by K. L. Going (Putnam, 2003)(author interview) takes place in NYC East Village punk scene; terrific characters.

Middle grade

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney (Amulet, 2008) is very funny and captures the middle-school experience beautifully.

What do you do outside the world of children's writing support?

My two main loves are music and martial arts. I host a radio show here in Colorado called the Rock & Roll Clubhouse. It streams worldwide every Wednesday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mountain time at For the past four and a half years, I've studied Kempo Karate, and I earned by black belt about a month ago.

Cynsational Notes

The new CBI Clubhouse is where writers for children and teens--beginner and pro alike--from around the world can come to hang out, make new writing buddies and sharpen their skills. The site is packed with audio, video, ebooks, a great message board, and much, much more.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Agent Interview: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Sarah Davies runs the Greenhouse, a full-service literary agency exclusively for authors of fiction (though not picture books) for children and young adults. Greenhouse launched in January 2008 and has already developed and sold a number of debut authors.

With offices in Virginia (just outside Washington D.C.) and London, the agency represents both American and British authors and sells direct to both markets. Foreign rights are handled by sister-company Rights People – a specialist children's rights-selling business with a fast-growing reputation for selling literary properties around the world.

Sarah has more than 25 years' experience of children's publishing, moving to the USA from London in October 2007. She started her career at Collins (before it was HarperCollins), followed by a spell at Transworld/Random House. In 1994, she joined Macmillan Children’s Books in London as Fiction Editor, rising through the editorial ranks to Publishing Director and member of the management board, where she was involved in all aspects of business strategy and development for an award-winning list which published 200+ titles per year, from novelty/preschool books to sophisticated teen fiction. She held this position until 2007 when she left to start Greenhouse.

Sarah has worked with and published many leading authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans include Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Sharon Creech, Carl Hiaasen, Karen Cushman, David Baldacci, Sarah Mlynowski, and Gary Paulsen. Brits include Philip Pullman, Peter Dickinson, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Eva Ibbotson, and Frances Hardinge. She also has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights, as well as a strong understanding of digital developments.

Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain--and homes in both countries--give her a uniquely transatlantic vision. She makes regular trips to New York and London, and in 2007 was a member of the judging panel for SCBWI UK's first-ever writing competition, which resulted in the anthology Undiscovered Voices.

Married to an American, Sarah has twin sons who are more-or-less grown-up now, but who taught her much of what she knows about children and reading. She attends major international book fairs and trade events and loves meeting new authors and nurturing fresh talent. She says, "Everything I’d most like you to know about Greenhouse is embodied in its name. You'll find my Ten Top Tips for Writing Children's Fiction, and lots more info, on the Greenhouse website."

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

While I'd never doubted since I was fourteen that I was destined to be a publisher, I fell into children's books more by accident than by design. I'd been in my first job--working in religious/inspirational publishing in London for the late, great Lady Collins of what was then Sir William Collins Sons & Company Ltd (now, of course, HarperCollins)--for a year or two and was ready to move. I went for, and got, a job as Assistant Editor of the similarly late, great Armada Paperbacks imprint at Collins, which published mass-market fiction such as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. It was there that my love affair with books for young people began.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I've been in the books business for more than 25 years, virtually all of it in children's publishing (I made a short foray into adult fiction, which gave me great experience of editing blockbusters; plus I got very good at rewriting embarrassing sex scenes).

The children's industry has changed massively during my career. It seems a distant memory that we used to be called "kiddies corner"--a minor-league ghetto inhabited by "nice ladies" who made little sums of money from a lot of books. But 15 years ago that's how it looked--or it did in the U.K., and I suspect things were much the same in the U.S.

The financial pulling power of authors like J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, Jacqueline Wilson (who is huge in the U.K.)--and so many others now--has changed the status of children's books and made them a really big economic player on the publishing scene. This has led to more children's publishers/lists springing up, as well as more agencies going into the children's/teen arena.

Now the great debut voice is at a premium because we have proof that the hottest new properties can sell around the world and on the grand scale.

In general, the business has become far more international, and there is much more synergy between the transatlantic markets than there was, though there will always be areas of difference too. I've also seen the rise and rise of the role of marketing and, of course, new and developing possibilities within the digital realm.

What led to your transition from publisher to agent?

I had been with Macmillan Children’s Books in the U.K. for thirteen years, I was being approached about various new job possibilities, and I knew it was time for me to make a move.

I had the option of moving upwards in a corporate publishing structure or moving outwards into something different. I loved working creatively with authors, and I also loved negotiating and doing deals, so agenting was an obvious area to consider.

I was also attracted by the fact that agenting is all about creating opportunities and being personally dynamic and flexible, rather than constantly having to fit into a corporate structure.

I'm definitely an entrepreneur at heart, so the opportunity to create a new business from scratch, on a new continent--but with the security and strength of a highly successful and solidly established parent company [Working Partners, the people behind many leading U.S. and U.K. children's fiction series] was too good to miss.

The Greenhouse also enabled me to span the Atlantic in both a literary and personal way, representing both American and British writers and keeping homes on both continents, and this seemed tailor-made for me. Oh, it also enabled my American fiancé and I to get married and actually live on the same continent!

Could you offer us some insights into your transatlantic approach?

My publishing career gave me great contacts on both sides of the Pond, plus I acquired, worked with, and published many debut and established American authors over the years.

It has therefore felt very natural to reach out to both American and British authors and know that Greenhouse has good things to offer them. Skype, webcam, Blackberry, FTP sites, electronic banking--and United Airlines--all make it very feasible to run a transatlantic business these days, and I receive submissions from all over the world.

Although publishing contracts are necessarily territorial, talent is not! A great story will work in many different markets; there's no reason why an American author shouldn't score their biggest deal in the U.K., or vice versa. What I do believe is unique, however, is that Greenhouse takes the same commission for both U.S. and U.K., calling them both "home market".

However, as I write this I do have a very exciting piece of news, hot off the press!

I've just appointed a wonderful young British agent--Julia Churchill (previously of London’s Darley Anderson Agency)--to focus on building our British stable of authors. This will not only enable me to concentrate even more on the American market, it will also enable Greenhouse to deepen its reach into British writers' conferences and events in a way I just can't do now as most of my time is spent in the U.S.A.

I'm very proud that in less than one year Greenhouse has the platform to grow in this way, and I believe we’ll keep growing. The agency is very twenty-first century--it blows out of the water the idea that all your staff have to be sitting in one building in one city. Julia will be in London with my finance people; my senior rights colleague is in Toronto, and my contracts manager is in Bath, England.

If the talent's out there, there's no reason why in time we can't appoint more agents in different locations, all bringing the same values to what we do, and together forming a cohesive business. I find that a very exciting and modern model, and it really reflects today's international books industry. My ambition is for Greenhouse to be the agency of choice for children's writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent," one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an "editorial agent," and that is a trademark of the Greenhouse. I came up with the name "Greenhouse" after a lot of cogitating because I wanted the agency to be all about nurturing, growing, flowering.

Turn over my business card, and you'll read that Greenhouse is "Where writers grow." I have spent my whole career working editorially with authors, from concept stage to craft, and writing editorial notes, changing titles, supporting an author through revision (often several revisions), is deep in my bones.

My mantra is also that if I'm going to get an author a deal, it must be the best that author can possibly achieve--and that invariably means a lot of hard work. I have to get wholeheartedly behind each manuscript I send out, and I therefore have very high standards. The night before a submission you'll find me going through correcting typos.

But the trade-off is that many editors have commented on the quality of Greenhouse submissions. Because I've been a publisher most of my life, I know exactly how publishers think, and that has been incredibly helpful.

When a Greenhouse manuscript lands on the desk of a hard-pressed publisher, I want them to drop everything because they know that if it's from Greenhouse it'll be good.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder? In either case, why?

I see myself as a career-builder. I'm looking for authors I can accompany for the long term, if possible. I love thinking strategically--and I also love to see my writers develop in their mastery of the craft and in their self-confidence.

I want to create careers for writers if I possibly can, not just one-off success. It's a great privilege to accompany authors on this journey into the unknown, and through long experience I do understand the insecurities and anxieties that are part of this writing life. It is my job to be alongside, as professional friend and ally.

Most people I work with have a long-held dream of being a professional writer, and I want to see them still writing, with increasing success, well into the future. That means taking care with each step we make together.

What do you see as the ingredients for a "breakout" book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

There are probably three aspects to every great book--a really strong story, a great voice, and characters that leap off the page. If you've got all that, then you know you've got a winner.

I think an author sometimes has to experiment with styles and voices to find what is truly their niche. Think of someone like Meg Cabot who had a degree of success as an adult romance writer, but really took off when she found her voice for teens.

There are many examples of authors who were writing in a smaller, quieter way, but who then found their big idea, their big story, that changed everything (for example, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Knopf, 1996, 1997).

There's no formula for this, but there’s something about the right idea coming along at the right time, and in the hands (and creative imagination) of the one writer who can tell that unique story. It's a kind of alchemy!

Sometimes the "breakout" comes more gradually because it takes a while for the market to catch on to a writer’s brilliance. Someone I'd mention here is Philip Reeve, the author of Mortal Engines (HarperCollins, 2003, 2004) and its sequels, and Larklight and Starcross (Bloomsbury USA, 2006, 2007; 2007, 2008) who I think is not only a great storyteller, but also has an outstanding wit and command of language. He's becoming better and better known through word of mouth, but it has taken a while.

In your interview with Tami Lewis Brown at The Tollbooth, you mentioned that you don't represent picture books, illustrators, or non-fiction, but rather are interested in middle grade, tween, and teen manuscripts as well as the occasional brilliant chapter book. Is this still the case? Could you tell us more about your tastes?

Bearing in mind Greenhouse started life less than a year ago, I've focused on where I feel I can best use my abilities and experience, and that is in the areas you mention (though I hope we’ll go into picture books further down the tracks).

I like both commercial and literary fiction--and all points in between. I love strong, original concepts, particularly ones I feel could work internationally.

I'm interested in the whole world, not just U.S. and U.K., and having Rights People as my sister company, selling all Greenhouse's foreign rights internationally, means I don’t have to use sub-agents. This is a great asset for my authors--a real plus that I can offer them.

More specifically what do I like? I like authors who can make me laugh or cry, who can make me see the world in some new way--who make me want to leap to the phone to call them as soon as I've turned the last page.

I also love authors who can do great action (very rare) and big stories that engage the intellect as well as the heart (also rare). Oh, and sharp, snappy commercial writing with a strong hook.

But I also have a passion for beautiful, powerful language and therefore adore writers who can weave magic with their words (which means, yes, I will take on a literary novel if I have a strong enough belief in the author).

As I always tell my writers, editors acquire books because they fall in love with them. I have to fall in love too – with the potential of the writer, even if the material I see is rough and needs some shaping or development.

Likewise at The Tollbooth, you mentioned Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), Beth Goobie's The Lottery (Faber, 2007), and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)--thank you!--among recent favorites. Obviously, you have an affection for the spooky side of story. What about more realistic fiction? What are your recent favorite titles on that front and why?

Well, of course I loved Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown 2007)--that wonderful combination of deeply affecting but also funny.

I liked the commerciality, but nonetheless originality, of Audrey Wait! by Robin Benway (Razorbill, 2007).

I thought Dairy Queen and The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2006 and 2007) were lovely--moving, fresh, and absorbing.

I'm currently enjoying Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little Brown, 2007), and I like anything by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I'll also mention Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions, Framed, Cosmic, HarperCollins, 2004, 2006, 2008) and Julie Bertagna's Exodus (Walker, 2008--sequels to follow) whom I used to publish at Macmillan.

Frank has a wonderfully sharp but compassionate eye for family life from a child's perspective. Julie writes with lyrical power and was weaving stories around climate change and global warming before many people had even accepted them as a reality. It took a while for Julie to find the right house in the USA, but I believe Exodus has launched here very well.

Two books I tried very hard to publish (narrowly missing out to rivals!), but would have done anything to represent: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Random House, 2007, 2008) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Random House, 2003, 2004). Both are unique, impossible to put down, absolutely memorable.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

Yes, I accept submissions. Before sending anything, take a good look at the guidelines on the Greenhouse site. I ask for a succinct query email (no snail mail), with up to five (the first five) pages of text pasted into the email. I don't only want to see your concept, I want to see how your story opens and how you write. It's also worth looking at the Authors section on the site, which will give you an idea of the kinds of stories I like and with which I've so far had success.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I like writers who follow my submission guidelines. Or to be more honest, I get a bit cross with those who don't! Here are a few tips:

If you cut and paste, make sure you're not addressing your email to another agent instead of me!

Make sure you're sending me the kind of story I’m likely to be interested in. In other words, do your research in terms of age group, etc.

Don’t try to be too clever or gimmicky. Just tell me simply about your story and yourself.

Keep your query short and clear. I often receive 150 queries in a week, so it really helps if I can assimilate quickly what you are saying to me. You should be able to outline your story in one paragraph.

Remember that of necessity I have to make a rapid decision about you--whether I want to read more. I can usually tell in a few lines if I am going to be interested in your writing or not. Think about every word you write, open strongly, hear the cadence of your writing as if it's music. Be a perfectionist (I am!). This is your big chance to impress.

If you send exclusively to the Greenhouse, do let me know and I'll try to look at it more quickly.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

My authors are very, very important to me, and I feel a great responsibility for them. They have placed their trust in me, and that is a great privilege. I see my authors as my friends, but I also feel it's important to keep a professional distance so I remain objective. I try to be in very regular contact, even if nothing much is happening, so that I can reassure and encourage.

Writing is such an isolated life, and it puts so much pressure on an individual's inner resources, so I try to think through what each author might be needing at a particular time. Often it's just a chat, a brief update--or an email (like one I've just sent) saying, "Nothing happening yet but keep the faith."

I keep authors (and the wider public) in touch via my blog, and I meet my writers as and when I can at conferences and events. I'm very interested in the idea of "community" and look for ways that my authors can feel connected to each other, whether it's via Facebook, enjoying a Christmas lunch together, or fostering transatlantic friendships. I'd like to feel my authors found their work more fun, supportive, and social because they are part of Greenhouse!

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work? In either case, what is your reasoning?

When an author is starting out, I think it's helpful to aim at a particular area of the market--so if your first novel is a paranormal romance it's a good idea to follow up with something targeting those same readers.

Why would you not? You are trying to establish your name, and your name is your brand. This enables your publisher to position you on their list, and makes it far easier for them to justify the costs of marketing and promotion.

Further down the tracks, when you're more established, I'd certainly be supportive if an author felt a strong pull to write something very different. I represent authors not books, so I'll look after my authors whatever they write (if I think I can sell it).

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

A major challenge is making fast, good decisions on multitudes of submissions--and never losing sight of what that decision means to a writer who has laboured long and hard to produce it.

For me, agenting is about supporting writers in their calling, negotiating with integrity, being known for having high standards, being strong but absolutely fair, respecting publishers as well as writers, never losing my love for this craft or for language... I have a very high view of what an agent should be, and keeping all that in balance--and locating and attracting the finest talent around--is the challenge. I believe that if I am good, people will come, so that's what I focus on.

What do you love about it?

There's so much that I love! The author calling me late at night because he's scared he can't do his revision on time--and I'm the only one he can share that with.

The little celebration dance (my celebration track is Kelly Pickler's "Red High Heels"!) I do around my office when a publisher's just called to tell me they want to make an offer.

The tears on the phone as I tell a writer their life's dream has come to fruition after so much effort, and they are going to be published.

The pride I feel in the very first Greenhouse book jacket, now framed and hanging on the wall above my head. The knowledge that out of an empty room in Virginia, where I arrived so tremulously one year ago, a business has come into being--something that has changed people's lives, not least my own. This is a crazy, nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing but also thrilling industry, and my authors and I share the journey and the risk; it makes a unique bond.

What observations do you have about the U.K. and U.S. markets? Are there any differences in terms of market sensibility, etc.?

For sure there are differences, but also quite large areas of overlap now as the biggest author brands increasingly work around the world.

Generally, it seems easier to sell British fiction to the U.S., than American fiction to the UK--much to the frustration of American agents! There are complex reasons for that--partly to do with market size, partly to do with cultural/historical background, geography and voice.

Brits can be a little insular and aren't drawn to stories from the Deep South and (sadly) aren't that interested in American history--especially stories about Vietnam, the Revolutionary War, or Civil War.

They also like their fiction a little hard-edged, I think--more quirky than charming, more conceptual than warm or strong in sentiment. But there's also a particular kind of British voice that doesn't seem to work in the U.S.A.--it's hard to define, but stories that feel rooted in the British family and school system don't tend to succeed here (with some great exceptions).

The teen market is much bigger in the U.S., and there's an enviable amount of shelf space devoted to it. This means that much great U.S. fiction never finds its way to the U.K.--especially more "issues-based" or older novels.

That can seem surprising until you look at the costings involved in producing a small run of books. And profit/loss is what it tends to come down to in the end.

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent/upcoming titles?

Well, this is a bit invidious, given that none of my authors are published yet! I’ll therefore just say, look out for all the authors I've sold so far. Which in the USA means Sarwat Chadda (The Devil's Kiss (Hyperion, Fall 2009)), Lindsey Leavitt (Princess for Hire (Hyperion, Spring 2010)), Valerie Patterson (The Other Side of Blue (Clarion, Fall 2009)), Teresa Harris (Treasure in the Past Tense (Clarion, Spring 2010)), Alexandra Diaz (Of all the Stupid Things (Egmont, Spring 2010)), and Tami Lewis Brown (One Shiny Silver Key (Farrar Straus, Fall 2010)).

I love them all, and I believe they each have strong futures ahead of them.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

Well, my nearest and dearest might tell you I'm a bit of a workaholic. I do work pretty hard, but that's because I love what I do, I find it very exciting, and you don't build a business by sitting around!

But I also keep busy looking after my apartment in London (not easy running a property long distance) and traveling back and forth. I miss my British family a lot, especially my sons (twin boys, aged 22) and my four nieces, so I see as much of them as I can, whether here or there.

My husband and I love animals, especially dogs, and we spend a lot of time with our elderly Golden Retriever, Hogan.

I'm interested in everything historical, especially the Civil War, and I love the outdoor life you can have in the U.S.A. This year I discovered kayaking, especially on the Shenandoah River.

I also do quite a lot of photography. If I wasn't in the books business, I'd probably train as a photographer and take arty black-and-white portraits and close-ups of nature, full of vivid colour.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Only that I'm delighted (or as we Brits say, "dead chuffed") to be interviewed on Cynsations, which is a blog I heard about soon after I arrived in the U.S.A. It's a great honour to be here!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Author Interview: Stefan Petrucha on The Rule of Won

Read a brief biography of Stefan Petrucha from his website.

What were you like as a YA reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite titles?

Actually, I never read YA as a young adult, not anything labeled that anyway. I was 13 in 1972 and don't remember there even being a YA section in the bookstore.

It was around that age, though, that I went from being an avid comic book reader to including things like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal books, like Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969)

Over the next few years, I found I loved Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Lovecraft and even a few more literary types like Vonnegut, Steinbeck and Herman Hesse – they were probably my first official "favorite" authors, with books like Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963) and Of Mice and Men (Covici Friede, 1937).

What first inspired you to write for teens?

I wanted to be a writer since I was ten, and actually managed to start selling comic books scripts in the late eighties, so part of my audience was always teen, I just never thought of them as a separate group. I still don't, really, other than the fact that my YA books generally feature a teen main character, and they usually have to go to school instead of a job.

By the 2000s, I'd already written a few licensed novels for White Wolf books, based on their vampire role-playing games, and I was always on the lookout for more work.

At the NorthEastern Writer's Conference, more a big party than a conference, actually, I met Liesa Abrams, an editor at Penguin/Razorbill. She was looking for new YA material, and I arranged to pitch her some ideas.

Honestly, I had no idea what YA meant, so I headed on over to the Teen section at my local bookstore, started picking up books and reading the first sentence. When something grabbed me, I kept reading, and eventually picked up a few titles, like Feed by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2004), Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black (SimonPulse, 2004) and So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld (Razorbill/Penguin, 2005).

I was bowled over at the level of the writing and the vibrant ideas. There seemed more variation and experimentation here than in the so-called "adult" section, which left me suddenly very excited by the possibility of contributing.

Could you tell us about your path to publication--any sprints or stumbles along the way?

In specifically the YA realm, the pitches to Liesa led to my first teen book series, Timetripper (Razorbill/Penguin, 2006), which is about Harry Keller, a high school student who develops an altered perception of time. This was actually based on my first comic book series, Squalor (First Publishing, 1989). Liesa liked the concept and asked me to do some sample chapters. They went over well enough for Razorbill to offer a contract for a four-book series.

After that one thing led to another. Fellow writer Thomas Pendleton (author interview) and I made a six book deal for our Wicked Dead series (HarperCollins, 2007), about four dead girls telling ghost stories in an abandoned orphanage, and shortly thereafter, I had a two-book hardcover deal with Walker Books.

The first of those, Teen, Inc. (Walker, 2007) has probably been my most successful to date. It's about the first child ever raised by a corporation. I sold that based on several sample chapters (it's currently being developed as a TV series for Nick, by the way!).

The Rule of Won (Walker, 2008), on the other hand, started out as a page-long idea and a lunch conversation between myself, my editor at that time, Mary Gruetzke and Walker's publisher, Emily Easton. I'm currently finishing my third book for them, Split with editor Stacy Cantor, which will be out Fall 2009, along with the Teen, Inc. paperback.

Congratulations on The Rule of Won (Walker Books, 2008)! Could you tell us about the book?

Thanks! I was particularly pleased with it, since it deals with many issues, like why people believe what they believe, and what is reality, anyway, that I've been fascinated with for years.

Basically, it's a very wry look at help-yourself books.

In Rule, a group of high school students devoted to one such book's "you-can-and-should-have-it-all" principles slowly turns violent. The only thing in their way is hapless slacker, Caleb Dunne, who isn't sure what he believes, or doesn't. There's humor, adventure and message boards aplenty!

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

My interest in New Age ideas and the paranormal (in the old sense of the word, ghost hunting, UFOs, Big Foot, Reincarnation, Fringe Belief Systems, not the newer "Vampire Romance" sense...) went back to the seventies and Chariots of the Gods.

I'd written about similar things for years, with my comic series Squalor, Meta-4 (First Publishing, 1991), the first New Age Superheroes, later The X-Files comic (Topps, 1995), based on the TV series, and even my first self-published novel, Making God (Between the Lines, 1997), which is also about a fringe belief gone wild, but more on a national scale.

The notion that we make our own reality is very old, going back at least to the 19th Century, and made popular in books like The Science of Getting Rich (1910, Elizabeth Towne)--which The Secret references.

Sounds nice and spiritually evolved, but there's a dark side. Wish I had the reference, but I remember some proponents of similar ideas sitting on a panel a ways back. The skeptical moderator held up a picture of a child with a terrible birth defect and said, "Are you telling me that this child actually wanted to be born this way?" And they said, "Sad as it seems, yes." Talk about blaming the victim!

Please understand, I have nothing against positive thinking – It's incredibly valuable to believe in your heart of hearts that you can accomplish whatever you want, but I hardly think that translates into an incontrovertible Law of the Cosmos.

Aside from the billions of broken dreams that stand as evidence to the contrary, there's that whole, well, "the baby wanted to be born that way" thing.

With wish-fulfillment and peer pressure being such important, continual teen issues (explored by other great books, such as The Wave by Morton Rhue [AKA Todd Strasser] (Puffin Books, 1980)), it seemed a natural milieu for me to explore.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

After Teen, Inc., Emily and my new, equally terrific editor at Walker, Stacy Cantor, asked me for some rough ideas for a second book, so I came up with about four one-pagers. The original title was actually Wishful Thinking, though the name of the book-in-the-book was always The Rule of Won.

As for the writing, it was one of those rare instances in my career where I actually had a nice chunk of time to do the book. Usually, as a working writer, I'm under some deadline pressure, but this time I had about six months, so I actually had the leisure to write a few chapters, trash them, then start over until I felt like I got it right.

And there were lots of changes along the way. Originally, there were three narratives, one being our hero Caleb, who stands up against the cult, the other being from Ethan's, the cult leader's, point of view, the third being the message boards from the club members hat follow the book's dictums.

Caleb was originally a bully, trying to work his way back into school after being kicked out. Early on, I found that made him a bit too unsympathetic and came up with the notion of making him a slacker instead, so he had his own, if somewhat quirky, belief system that seemed a nice counterpoint to the desires or craves of the club members.

The next thing I wound up ditching was Ethan's half of the narrative. It seemed to slow things down, confuse the perspective a little. Plus, it was really depressing! Once I settled on Caleb and the "message board" as the sole narrators, things hummed along quite nicely. Caleb tells two chapters, and then we get a look at the postings on the message board.

I'm particularly pleased to think that through the message board I was able to make the group itself a character that evolves. Some of the individual messages may be a little cliché and simple, but I find that's true of real message boards, too, while, overall, it creates a strong sense of the group mind.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One challenge was to try to get across the idea that I, as an author, really don't know how the universe ultimately works or doesn't (neither does anyone else, by the way) and give all the points of view a fair shake.

Another was to try to keep the characters as human as possible, not to make it about heroes and villains, but real people, their beliefs and what they're willing to do for them.

What, if anything, do you wish you could change about publishing (as a business) and why?

Gear it more toward selling whatever books I feel like writing! [Joke!]

Seriously, though, publishing is what it is. Like any industry in a capitalist economy, it's a machine for making money.

Now, in that context of course, art and meaning and great life-changing stuff are always possible, and many, many people working in publishing aim for just that.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell him?

Buy stock in that new-fangled company called Microsoft! Trust me!

Past that, not to be afraid of losing my voice by exposing my writing to others or trying new ways of writing. To follow the rules more carefully before setting out to break them. To be a more fearless self-promoter, and, despite whatever happens, to continue to have faith in my personal muse, even if the necessities of earning a living don't always allow it full reign.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I raise two wonderful daughters, Maia (13) and Margo (10) with my wife and fellow writer Sarah Kinney, in our home in Western Massachusetts.

I exercise on an elliptical five times a week while watching fun, mindless action adventure like "24".

I do family stuff when I can, struggle to pay the bills, look for more work, read to the kids, talk to my best pal Sarah and wonder why I don’t have more time to read or practice playing piano!

What can your readers look forward to next?

I'm just finishing up my third book for Walker, Split which will be out late in 2009. It's the story of a young man, who, after facing a rough time and a difficult decision, winds up leading two lives, one in which he's carefree but careless, the other in which he’s caring but totally anxious. When he's awake in one life, he dreams in the other, as if he's in two worlds. His problems come to a head when parts of one life seem to magically slip into the other!

Past that, Sarah and I are still co-writing the Nancy Drew graphic novel series (Papercutz, 2005 – present), and I have two new adult projects I'm working on, neither of which I can talk about yet, but both of which involve the paranormal, in the old ghost-hunting sense and the new vampire sense! Make sense?
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