Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing the YA Novel with Jennifer Ziegler: July 26 to July 30 in Alpine, Texas

2010 Summer Retreat Classes: Writing the YA Novel with Jennifer Ziegler will be July 26 to July 30 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

Writing for teens and tweens requires more than a young protagonist. It also involves differences in tone, setting, structure, conflict, and - most of all - author mindset.

In this class, students will discuss what makes a novel "young adult" or "middle grade" or "tween." They will also look at some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) books to see how they tell a story about young people for young people.

The course will cover topics like:

* The life and markets of a children's novel.
* Structuring a novel for young readers.
* The language, tone, and voice of a young adult book.
* Conflicts, relationships, and dialogue of underage characters.
* Getting out of your adult mind and into the head of your protagonist.

The class will be part overview and part workshop. Those attending should come armed with plenty of story ideas - both clear and nebulous - an open mind, and a willingness to share.

Throughout the week, the group will ferret out the good ideas, firm them up, and turn them into early drafts.

Jennifer Ziegler is an Austin-based writer of young adult fiction and a former teacher. Her novel How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte/Random House, 2008) was a pick for the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading List and a 2009 Writers' League of Texas Teddy Award finalist. Alpha Dog (Delacorte/Random House, 2006) was a 2006 Teddy Award finalist.

In addition, she is a New York Times best-selling author of mass market fiction, writing under the name Lynn Mason. Her new novel, Sass and Serendipity (Delacorte/Random House), will be released next summer.

Note: Jennifer is one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite people. She has a wonderful understanding of the craft and market in writing for young readers. She's also warm, funny, and upbeat. I envy the students who join her for this workshop. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Next week, a dozen bloggers in the U.S., U.K., India, and the Philippines, will all feature the new picture book from Tulika Books, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. Neat, yes? Follow the tour at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Can't wait! Revisit A Tale of Two Uma Krishnaswami/ys. Note: highly recommended!

Congratulations to Heidi R. Kling on the release of Sea (Putnam, 2010)!

More News & Giveaways

What Kind of Fantasy is Tu Looking For? And what kind of synopsis? by Stacy Whitman from Tu Publishing. Peek: "I just want to be sure that you’re also familiar with what’s out there right now for children and teens, and not just what was published in the 70s and 80s by some of the best authors on the adult side. If you haven’t already, I suggest going to your local bookstore (or library, but the bookstore is better for seeing more current books all in one place) and looking at the middle grade and YA shelves to get a good idea of how broad the definition of SF/fantasy is in that section." Read a Cynsations interview with Stacy.

Congratulations to Chris Barton on making the New York Times best-seller list for the first time with Shark vs. Train, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown, 2010)! Peek: "In this hilarious and wacky picture book, Shark and Train egg each other on for one competition after another, including burping, bowling, Ping Pong, piano playing, pie eating, and many more! Who do you think will win, Shark or Train?" Note: Other best-seller Austinites include Jacqueline Kelly, Louis Sachar, Liz Garton Scanlon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Jennifer Ziegler (under the pen name "Lynn Mason").

Marilyn Kaye: Gifted and Talented by Lauren Barack from School Library Journal. Peek: "The problem with treating writing as a job lies in the fact that, to paraphrase Eugene Ionesco, there are no real vacations. Even when you're not literally writing, you're thinking about writing." Source: Read Roger.

Working as an Author-Illustrator Team Before Submission by Mary Kole from Peek: "I say you run one big risk with this situation, whether you’re approaching an agent or a publisher: what if one component is better than the other? And since you have a close relationship with your co-creator and love the project as is, you may have trouble seeing that."

Self-Promotion: Starting Too Soon by Alyx Dellamonica, posted and forward by Victoria Strauss from Writer Beware Blogs! Peek: "Ultimately, this question is part of the greater river of debate over marketing in book publishing. Does it work, how much energy does it deserve, and how hard should one chase that brass-ring dream of going viral? We all grapple with this." Source: Janni Lee Simner.

Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers? by Laura Miller from The New Yorker. Peek: "There are, or will soon be, books about teen-agers slotted into governmentally arranged professions and marriages or harvested for spare parts or genetically engineered for particular skills or brainwashed by subliminal messages embedded in music or outfitted with Internet connections in their brains. Then, there are the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity...." Note: Great article, but I respectfully disagree with the latter assertion that you don't have to offer a fresh twist, but rather just be "harrowing." YAs may be young, but those who are avid fans of a particular literary tradition may well trump us grizzled types in expertise. Source: Nathan Bransford.

Amazon, Sales & Returns - Oh My! by Lisa Schroeder from Author2Author. Peek: "Most authors don't have any idea how their books are selling until months, perhaps even years, after the book is released. Why? Because royalty statements only come out twice a year, but not only that, they reflect a period of time that was months ago." Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa.

Manifestos, Branding and Zing by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "It’s okay to want more sales and good opportunities. It’s okay to work hard to make good things happen. But for clarity’s sake, let’s not refer to any of this as having anything to do with branding. Instead, let’s talk about Zing."

Cakes by Gaby: Serving South Florida: "With 20 years of baking experience, Gaby Triana is a critically acclaimed, self-taught cake baker/decorator and author of teen novels living in Miami, Florida." Note: do you think I could lure her from South Florida to Austin?

What Does Fantasy Teach Us? by Deva Fagan from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: "I believe that the fantastical can teach us just as much about life and the world as gritty realism. That it can help us learn to be better people, allow us to explore injustice and cruelty and beauty and hope. That fantasy can teach us about the real world." Read a Cynsations interview with Deva.

Poetry for Children: About Finding and Sharing Poetry with Young People: a new look for an established, amazing blog by Sylvia Vardell. Read a Cynsations interview with Sylvia.

Summertime Flexibility by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Did I like working on a laptop in the front seat of a compact car? No. I don’t like typing with my elbows close to my waist or trying to find angles where the sun won’t glint off the screen. Happily, we were driving in the dark a good bit of the time, so the sun wasn’t a huge problem."

How to Grab An Agent's Attention in a Query: Tips from Twenty Agents to Make Your Query Shine by Suzette Saxton from QueryTracker.

What It Takes to Be An Agent by Jessica and Kim at BookEnds, LLC. Peek: "So often I hear people say that they love to read, therefore they want to be agents. Oh, if only it were that simple. As any of you who have followed agents on Twitter or through blogs have probably come to realize, being an agent is not a 9-5 job. It’s a 9-9 job and then some, and the truth is the reading is such a small part of what we do."

Loss: Is It Why We Write? by Jane Kurtz from The Power of One Writer. Peek: "...when flood took the neighborhood where my children had spent most of their elementary school years, I was compelled to write. I first fiercely re-connected with Ethiopia through my writing, where my memories could finally take root. Each of my books probably has loss woven through it somehow." Read American Girl: Lanie and Lanie's Real Adventures by Jane Kurtz.

Marvelous Marketer: Holly Cupala (Author of Tell Me a Secret) by Shelli from Market My Words. Peek: "One strategy that I think was helpful before teaming up with an agent was to meet with editors. They would ask to see the full manuscript, but I didn’t submit it myself. So when [agent] Edward [Necarsulmer] asked me about the manuscript’s history, I could tell him there were five editors who wanted to see it—he ended up getting a two-book deal in the space of a few weeks."

Memorable Characters in Middle Grade Fiction by Mary Atkinson from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "The memorable characters of middle grade fiction have their own voice, they struggle desperately to get what they want, and they are often filled with contradictions. Such characters leap off the page through their actions, dialogue, and internal emotions. How do authors create memorable characters?"

Agents Are Not Just Gatekeepers by Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "For an aspiring author, the gatekeeping function is basically all they think about when they think about agents. But in actuality, agents spend most of their time on their existing clients, who happen to be the ones that have already made it through the hoop." Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Author An Na will join fellow visiting faculty Coe Booth and Franny Billingsley at this July's residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. See the entire list of VCFA faculty.

Congratulations to author Jessica Lee Anderson on signing with literary agent Andrea Cascardi, and congratulations to Andrea on signing Jessica! See also a new Interview with Jessica Lee Anderson from Melissa Buron, originally published in The Houston Banner (June 2010). Read a Cynsations interview with Jessica by P.J. Hoover.

Fighting Fatigue by Lynn Viehl from Paperback Writer. Peek: "Publishing loses so many great writers every year. The stress of trying to be-all and do-all as a professional writer inevitably and negatively affects the writer as well as the quality of their work, which tips over the seven dominoes of writer self-destruction via creative fatigue: exhaustion, paranoia, burn-out, depression, isolation, renunciation and, finally, tossing in the towel." Source: Elizabeth Scott.

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Critique Groups and Weren't Afraid to Ask by Kirby Larson from Kirby's Lane, featuring insights from Martha Brockenbrough, Deborah Heiligman, Sara Lewis Holmes, Henry Neff, Ann Whitford Paul and Conrad Wesselhoeft! See also Searching for a Critique Group by S.M. Ford AKA Susan Uhlig from Christine Fonseca, Author.

Will the Internet Kill Nonfiction by Tanya Lee Stone from INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "How exciting, in fact, to be in the game at this moment of change. The possibilities are enormous." Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya Lee Stone.

Un-sappy Romance: writing insights from Gail Carson Levine. Peek: "When I want people to fall in love I think of them as jigsaw-puzzle pieces that need to fit together. This bit of him has to satisfy that place in her that’s been starved, and vice versa. Maybe I see it this way because of my parents, who remained in love for forty-nine years until my father’s death." Source: Anna Staniszewski. Read a Cynsations interview with Gail.

Cynsational Screening Room

Write On Con: "We’d all heard so many writers tell us they wished they could attend a conference, but simply didn’t have the time or money. So we decided to bring a conference to them—a free online conference that anyone could attend in the convenience of their own homes. And so, WriteOnCon was born. (Rated MC-18: for main characters 18 and under.)" The online event is scheduled for Aug. 10 to Aug. 12; see roster of presenters and more information. Source: the Texas Sweethearts.

The Vampire Hunters hosts give you the inside scoop on how to tell the if your friend is just a regular teen or a vampire! Need more tips? Check out the book Fat Vampire: A Never Coming Of Age Story by Adam Rex (HarperCollins, June 27, 2010).

Four Texas Authors from Kathi Appelt. Featuring Jenny Moss, Janet S. Fox, April Lurie, and Varian Johnson. Interviews by and reading with Kathi.

More Personally

Summer seems to have already arrived in Texas. At least according to the sunflower blooming in my yard. (It's less fuzzy in real-life).

Authors That Inspire by Kristine Carlson Asselin from My Writing Journey. Kristine offers her reaction to my recent keynote at the New England SCBWI Conference. Peek: "First of all, Cyn's speech was funny. And that's important for a Saturday morning conference presentation. She talked about her adorable husband, her life as a law student, and the epiphany that came when she decided to start writing for children (as I recall, it had something to do with ducks.) And I loved her immediately." Note: Kristine's Taurus, Virgo & Capricorn: All About the Earth Signs was published by Capstone Press in January 2010.

End of the Semester

This week was dedicated in part to writing end-of-the-semester evaluations for my Vermont College of Fine Arts students. I would like to thank Ann, Janice, Kate, Melanie, and Tara for all of their good cheer and hard work this semester. I'd also like to thank them for all that they taught me.

A Learning Experience by VCFA faculty chair Margaret Bechard. Peek: "I once had a student tell me that it took her two years to really process all I had said to her during our semester together."

Cynsational Events

University Libraries Presents Cynthia Leitich Smith in Summer Sunset Lecture by Karen Wentworth from UNM Today. Peek: "Cyn­thia Leitich Smith, the best-selling author of young adult Gothic books Tan­ta­lize and Eter­nal, will present 'Talk­ing Back to Bram: Rein­vent­ing Goth­ics' on at 7 p.m. June 26 in the Stu­dent Union Build­ing, Ball­room C."

Austin Area Events

The Writers League of Texas 2010 Agents conference, will be June 25 to June 27. On Saturday, at 10:15 a.m., Greg Leitich Smith will moderate a panel titled Kid Lit: One Hot Market, with editor Mary Colgan of Chronicle Books; agent Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents; and Alice Tasman of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency.

At 1:45 a.m., author Jennifer Ziegler will be moderating a panel called YA, YA, YA Not: How to Tell if your Book is for Adults or Teens or Both, with editor Mary Colgan and author Mari Mancusi.

On Sunday, at 9 a.m., Laurie McLean and Alice Tasman will be on a panel titled Trendspotting: The Forecast for YA and Children's Books.

Also on Sunday at 9 a.m., Greg will be on a panel moderated by Clay Smith (Literary Director of the Texas Book Festival), called The Ties that Bind: The Agent/Author Relationship. Also on that panel will be James Fitzerald of the James Fitzgerald Agency, Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, and author David Marion Wilkinson.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of Swim the Fly by Don Calame (Candlewick, 2010)! Read an excerpt or sample chapter (PDF). Check out this author interview (PDF).

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Swim the Fly" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: June 30. Sponsored by Candlewick Press; U.S. entries only.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Guest Post: Eva Mozes Kor on Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz

By Eva Mozes Kor

Fiction is the fruit of one's imagination and can be fascinating. It can also serve to help people understand others better--to put themselves in someone else's shoes. Fiction writers often do research and include historical fact and context to their stories.

But there are several reasons why I think that when it comes to an historical event like the Holocaust, true stories should be the first resource.

First, although fiction writers often do extensive research for their books, they often take license with the truth to help the dramatic element of their story. That is okay, as long as readers know it is fiction. But fiction is not interchangeable with nonfiction for the purpose of learning the true facts, or as close to the facts as an author can get.

Even writers with the best intentions sometimes get their facts wrong when writing history. Writers often have to make assumptions about how a person would feel or what they would think in a given set of circumstances, but the reality could be quite different. Who better to provide that understanding than people who lived through the event?

The third reason is something particular to Holocaust survivors, which is that all too often we have not been allowed to speak for ourselves. For a long time, it seemed that there was an emphasis on the people who died, as if those of us who had survived did not count. Others, out of good intentions or bad, have tried to appoint themselves a spokesperson, though they were not there.

We, the survivors, should be shown respect for being living witnesses and be the first resource to learn the truth. For all these reasons, I believe that a survivor's story should always be included in any Holocaust curriculum.

Why should teens study the Holocaust? Well, there are the obvious reasons that I think most people understand: that teens should learn this history, should learn the evil that comes from prejudice and hatred.

But with my book, I am trying to do more and give them a message of hope. Growing up can be very hard in and of itself, and kids and teens often have tremendous difficulties in their lives.

My message to my readers: to never, ever give up. They can survive and they can thrive. They can be anything they want to be.

I never dreamed that I would live to be a person who has met heads of state, who has spoken publicly in front of thousands of people--adults and children--nationally and internationally.

If I can survive Auschwitz, they can survive their own circumstances. If I can become somebody, they can become somebody. If I can forgive the Nazis and heal myself, they too can let go of hurt and become happy and healthy. I want to help them bring peace--into their own lives and into our world.

From the promotional copy:

Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri (Tanglewood, 2009).

Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she arrived in Auschwitz. While her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, she and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man known as the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele.

Mengele's twins were granted the privileges of keeping their own clothes and hair, but they were also subjected to sadistic medical experiments and forced to fight daily for their own survival, as most of the twins died as a result of the experiments or from the disease and hunger pervasive in the camp.

In a narrative told with emotion and restraint, readers will learn of a child's endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil. The book also includes an epilogue on Eva's recovery from this experience and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis.

Through her museum and her lectures, she has dedicated her life to giving testimony on the Holocaust, providing a message of hope for people who have suffered, and working toward goals of forgiveness, peace, and the elimination of hatred and prejudice in the world.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Voice: Jane Kelley on Nature Girl

Jane Kelley is the first-time author of Nature Girl (Random House, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old Megan is stuck in the wilds of Vermont for the summer with no TV, no Internet, no cell phone, and worst of all, no best friend.

So when Megan gets lost on the Appalachian Trail with only her little dog, Arp, for company, she decides she might as well hike all the way to Massachusetts where her best friend, Lucy, is spending her summer.

Life on the trail isn’t easy, and Megan faces everything from wild animals and raging rivers to tofu jerky and life without bathrooms.

Most of all, though, Megan gets to know herself—both who she’s been in the past and who she wants to be in the future—and the journey goes from a spur-of-the-moment lark to a quest to prove herself to Lucy, her family, and the world!

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

My character Megan leapt into life. It seemed like I always had a strong sense of her voice. In fact, this page from my notebook where I began writing the book in 2004 is almost the same as the first page of the published book! Wow! It really must have been magic!

But as any magician will tell you, that easy fluidity is deceptive. Even the simplest magic trick requires thought, planning, and years of practice.

The voice starts with an inspiration. Maybe it’s a sentence you are lucky enough to overhear. In my case, it was a situation. A city girl is forced to spend the summer in Vermont. (Which I thought of because we were city people spending the summer in Vermont.)

To that somewhat generic idea, I started adding details. I filled that notebook. The pages weren’t exactly character exercises, but they served the same purpose. I was following my character. Why was Megan there? Why hadn’t her friend come? Who was her family? Why did they drive her crazy? Why did she get lost in the woods?

I also listened to young people. At the time, I was lucky. I happened to be living with a 10-year-old girl—my daughter. From watching her and her friends, I learned what mattered to kids that age. And what I didn’t directly observe, I could ponder. How does it feel to be out of place? To be bad at everything? To be abandoned by your friend?

I must confess that Megan is more like me than like my daughter. My siblings will tell you that I was grumpy and whiny, particularly about hiking. And so, I guess you could say that I freed my inner child (who had the nickname “Griny Whumpus”). But those cranky remarks were just a starting place. My reasons for grumbling were not the same as Megan’s.

No character exists in a vacuum. The voice of a character is built by specificity of details. What foods does she like? What is in her bedroom? These details are best discovered as responses to situations. You don’t want a checklist, you want a person. And real people are a mess of contradictions.

The best way to find a character’s voice is to be patient. To let it build, bit by bit. Don’t be afraid to wait for the third idea or the fourth what if. When I write, I do try to be quiet enough to listen to my character speak. When it happens, it will feel like magic—even though you and I know it really isn’t.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I used to hate revising. I always got defensive. After all, did anybody ever tell Lewis Carroll that his characters weren’t very sympathetic?

But after the second draft of Nature Girl, I realized that being asked to revise was a huge compliment. Someone had cared enough to read it. Someone had found enough promise in it to take the time to give me advice.

I was lucky I had that change of heart because I had to revise Nature Girl six more times before I signed the contract with Random House.

My husband, my daughter, my agent Linda Pratt, and a potential editor all had complaints (I mean suggestions) about my book. I don’t have the space to list all their many points. I will just focus on one particular criticism. Everybody wanted to know: where were the helicopters?

My initial response was -- there aren’t any. I didn’t want helicopters cluttering up my humorous and heartwarming story of how a girl finds herself by getting lost in the woods.

Besides, what did I know about helicopters? It had been a long time since I had seen the movie “Apocalypse Now” (1979). In retrospect, I probably didn’t want them because I didn’t think I could describe them properly.

But the helicopters would not go away. They hovered over the book, even though I continued to leave them off the page. I didn’t want to stick some in just to be realistic. After all, is it realistic for an 11-year-old girl to hike the Appalachian Trail? Can you tell that I was feeling a little defensive again?

Then I had a realization. Perhaps the helicopter lovers were trying to tell me something else. Maybe they didn’t just want whirring blades. Maybe they had a sense that something else was missing and just didn’t know how to say it.

I thought a little bit harder. Yes the helicopters would add a layer of reality. But they would also help sustain the tension while Megan is hiking. Because Megan didn’t want the helicopters to help her, they could make another much-needed obstacle to her journey. Would she be rescued before she reached her goal?

So I added a helicopter. But I made sure to put it in where its whirring blades could churn up Megan’s new-found confidence.

Then it came time for the next round of revisions. Sure enough, my editor Shana Corey said, shouldn’t there another helicopter?

No! I said. But I added in another one because Shana was right. As long as Megan’s journey continues, there should be helicopters.

In the end, I am extremely grateful for all the comments I got—even from the copy editor. Every single person sincerely wanted to help me make my book better. And every single comment helped me – once I learned how to listen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Every Word Counts: Crafting Nonfiction that Sings

By Melissa Stewart

All nonfiction manuscripts begin with a compelling topic and hours of diligent research. But when you finally sit down at the keyboard, don’t underestimate the power of language.

Whether you’re writing creative nonfiction or expository nonfiction, careful attention to style, tone, and word choice can transform a good nonfiction manuscript into a truly memorable piece.

We often hear how important “voice” is in fiction writing. It’s important in nonfiction writing, too.

Nonfiction voice has three basic components—point of view, style, and tone.

Most nonfiction for young readers is written in third person point of view, so it is style and tone that give nonfiction writing its voice. If you ignore the possibilities that these literary devices offer, your manuscripts will probably fall flat. But if you use them to their full advantage, your carefully crafted prose will delight as well as inform.

Style is the personality of the writing. Authors create it with deliberate choices in sentence structure and word choice. When I’m deciding what style to adopt for a manuscript, I think about the function of the piece and the expectations of the publisher.

Sometimes nonfiction writing should be straightforward and businesslike. But most of the time, a lively, more informal style is a better choice. Compare the two examples below. They convey almost the same information but employ very different styles.

From the Encarta Online Encyclopedia:

The outer auditory canal, which measures about 3 cm (about 1.25 in) in length, is a tubular passageway lined with delicate hairs and small glands that produce a wax-like secretion called cerumen. The canal leads from the pinna to a thin taut membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane, which is nearly round in shape and about 10 mm (0.4 in) wide. It is the vibration of the eardrum that sends sound waves deeper into the ear.

From Now Hear This! The Secrets of Ears and Hearing (Benchmark, 2009):

When you look at the opening to your ear canal, it’s hard to imagine what’s inside. That dark, little tunnel is about half as long as your pinky finger. At the far end, sound waves crash into your eardrum—a thin, skin-like membrane that separates your outer ear from your middle ear.

Soft, sensitive skin lines the surface of your ear canal. Just below the surface, dozens of small sacs called cerumen glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of icky earwax. The gummy goo oozes through tiny tubes and seeps into your ear canal through pit-like pores.

The encyclopedia entry is straightforward and informative, but most people wouldn’t want to read pages and pages of information written in this style. That’s okay, though, because that’s not how we use the encyclopedia. It’s a reference that is used to snatch small bits of knowledge and then move on.

Now Hear This! is much more fun to read. It’s also full of amazing facts that will fascinate young readers. The comparisons in the piece are relevant to the audience’s everyday experiences, and the text contains vivid, memorable images. This kind of engaging, conversational style will encourage kids to keep on reading.

Tone is how the writing makes your readers feel. Does it calm them down or rev them up? Does it make them feel joyous or sad, respectful or sassy?

Take a look at the two examples below. Can you identify some of the reasons their tones are so different?

From It’s Spit-acular!: The Secrets of Saliva (Benchmark, 2009):

Spit a little saliva into the palm of your hand. Now take a good long look. What do you see?
Spit is a clear, slippery liquid. It looks a lot like water, but it’s a little slimier, and it’s full of tiny bubbles. If you haven’t brushed your teeth lately, your spit might also contain tiny bits of food. Ew! Gross!
There’s a good reason spit looks like water. Water is its main ingredient. But spit also contains many other things. They help saliva do its job.
The slimy mucus in spit makes swallowing easier. Proteins in saliva start to break down food before it reaches your stomach. Spit also contains salts, gases, and all kinds of yucky germs. That’s something to think about the next time someone hits you with a spitball.

From When Rain Falls (Peachtree, 2008):

Inside clouds, water droplets budge and bump, crash and clump. The drops grow larger and larger, heavier and heavier until they fall to the earth.

When rain falls in a forest . . .
. . . scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.

A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in. Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes.

It’s Spit-acular!: The Secrets of Saliva is intended for grades 3-5, and its goal is to get readers excited about learning. The tone is sassy, even irreverent.

When Rain Falls is for younger children. The soothing, comforting tone makes it appropriate for a bedtime story. But the lyricism will also engage children in a classroom setting. Like style, tone is created through deliberate decisions about sentence structure and word choice.

Word choice is a very big topic. In fact, it could be the subject of a whole separate post. Here are some basic guidelines for choosing words carefully as you craft nonfiction prose.

1. Strong, active verbs bring a piece of writing to life. They can make text more specific and more descriptive.

From Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson (Henry Holt, 2004):

Splitter, splat, splash! Rain gushes into the rain forest.
It soaks the moss, drizzles off dangling vines, and thrums
against slick waxy leaves.

2. Readers like surprises, such as playful and unexpected word choices. Don’t hesitate to use:

—Gross, icky, or silly words

—Big words, lo-o-o-o-o-ng words

—Internal rhyme


A great example of unexpected word choices—ones that really make readers think—is An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006). Her main text is comprised of simple statements, such as “An egg is clever.” and “An egg is artistic.” and “An egg is giving.”

Most of us have never tough of an egg in these terms. But after reading the sidebars, which present specific examples to support the general statements, readers can’t help but have a whole new appreciation for eggs.

3. The anatomical structure of our ears combined with the physical laws of sound wave transmission combine forces to make certain combinations of sounds and syllables particularly pleasing to our ears. That’s why devices like alliteration, rhythm, and repetition can give a piece of writing a magical quality.

From Home at Last: A Song of Migration by April Pulley Sayre (Henry Holt, 1998):

Out at sea, grown-up salmon remember a smell.
It’s the smell of the stream where they were born.
They’ll swim two thousand miles. Hop up waterfalls.
Just to be … home at last.

4. Meaningful comparisons enrich text by associating something that is unfamiliar with something readers know well. Similes and metaphors are powerful because they can help a reader envision a place or understand a challenging concept with ease. David M. Schwartz does a fantastic job of employing kid-friendly comparisons in

If You Hopped Like a Frog (Scholastic, 1999):

If you swallowed like a snake . . .
you could gulp a hot dog thicker than a telephone pole.

If you scurried like a spider . . .
you could charge down an entire football field in just two seconds.

5. Appeal to the senses with descriptions of smells, sounds, tastes, etc. These kinds of concrete details can transport the reader to a faraway time or place. Smell has a strong connection to memory, and olfactory details can make readers feel like they are part of the scene you’re describing. Sound effects can add fun and energy to a piece.

From Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre (Henry Holt, 2002):

Chew-chew-chew ant antbird calls. Shapes flit.
A grasshopper thumps onto a trunk.
Thwap, pip, pop. Insects leap up, jump up, fly up!
Scorpions scurry.
Frogs are hopping. Tarantulas are scurrying.
Ants are slithering away.
The army ants are waking. . .
And they’re coming right this way!

Now it’s time for you to start experimenting. Begin by asking yourself some questions:

Could you enrich a nonfiction piece you’re struggling with by reworking its style or tone?

Are there ways you could use verbs more effectively in your writing?

Would adding comparisons to a work-in-progress help readers see your topic more clearly?

As Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park likes to say, “just play.” Don’t be afraid to write a piece several different ways and then see which version works best. Take some risks. Try new things. You never know what might happen.

Cynsational Notes

This essay is adapted from a lecture Melissa Stewart gave to the students in the Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 100 science books for children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, New York; and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a full-time writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.

When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Board of Advisors and a judge for the American Institute of Physics Children’s Science Writing Award.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Voice: Swati Avasthi on Split

Swati Avasthi is the first-time author of Split (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

16-year-old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father's fist), $3.84, and a secret. It is about what happens after. After you've said enough, after you've run, after you've made the split - how do you begin to live again?

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

Jace came to me over a period of years, really. His character emerged from a short story I wrote called “Swallow” (Water~Stone, Vol. 11), which was drafted in three points of view.

One of the point-of-view characters was a 35-year-old male teacher, who had made bad decisions in response to a painful divorce. I workshopped it with Sheila O’Connor, teacher extraordinaire, who told me that the male point of view wasn’t really necessary for that short story.

After some angst, I axed him from the story, but I couldn’t axe him from my head. So I gave him a new problem, Jace’s. That meant I needed to re-imagine his character with a different history and as much younger.

Jace’s situation was born out of my experience coordinating a domestic violence legal clinic. Once, while a woman was relaying a harrowing account of abuse to me while her two children looked on, I asked her if she wanted an intern to look after them. She told me no, they had witnessed the abuse. The compassion for those kids was perhaps the starting point for both Jace and Christian, because I wondered what it would be like to grow up with your primary role model as an abuser.

With situation and basic character in hand, I started to dig deeply into him. I ran a gazillion character exercises with him, so many that I developed a class called “Discovering Your Characters,” in which I teach many of the exercises I used to mine Jace.

One of my favorite exercises for discovering secondary characters is an adaption of one that poet Jim Moore gives his students. He suggests sitting down in the same place at the same time every day for a week and writing for 15 minutes on the following: create a scene or a moment between your protagonist and someone with whom your protagonist has an emotionally charged relationship. But you must keep the scene quiet, and it must have three objects that stay the same throughout the week.

I did this exercise for Christian, writing from his point of view. I learned so much about him with relatively little effort. I captured his voice, his brotherly affection, and his history in less than two hours (because I actually only did this five times…ooo, bad student). It’s a great exercise. I now run it with characters I’m struggling to to get an handle on.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Let me start by saying I love this question. So often I hear the reverse – how teaching and writing are not compatible. But I find that being a writer and a teacher work in harmony for me. Writing feeds my teaching and vice-versa.

In my view, learning craft lessons, such as “show, don’t tell” or “opening with a promise for the reader” is not incredibly complicated. The concepts themselves are quite teachable and are not rocket science.

The wonderfully challenging part of writing is how to apply those lessons to your story. That is where the art of writing comes in. The application is different every time.

So, teaching grounds me continually in craft. It reminds me of what the reader needs and why. I think that if we know the “rules” of writing and know why they exist and what they give to the reader, then we can break them with intention and with success. We can devise new solutions to problems that every narrative faces. So teaching others, listening to students, and responding to their work grounds me.

And also, I love it that teaching requires that I stay current on new lit. I think, if left to my own devices, I would probably read and reread and reread. I’d be like a typical parent who only listens to 80s music because that’s the generation I grew up in. Teaching keeps me reading new and interesting material, which in turn, makes me write better.

Writing feeds my teaching because I bring the problems I’m struggling with to class. Not literally, mind you. I don’t mean that I say, “Hey, I can’t figure out whether I should use structure X or Y. Can you help me with that?”

Instead, I delve into the idea of structure with energy and with questions of my own. There’s an adage: don’t learn with your mouth open. I don’t believe in that. I think you must open your mouth and try something, hear how it sounds, and then you can see the strengths or the flaws.

Cynsational Notes

Check out Swati's blog and book trailer (below).

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