Saturday, October 02, 2010

New Voice: Jacqueline West on The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One: The Shadows

Jacqueline West is the first-time author of The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One: The Shadows (Dial, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Old Ms. McMartin is definitely dead. Now her crumbling Victorian mansion lies vacant.

When eleven-year-old Olive and her dippy mathematician parents move in, she knows there's something odd about the place--not least the walls covered in strange antique paintings.

But when Olive finds a pair of old spectacles in a dusty drawer, she discovers the most peculiar thing yet: She can travel inside these paintings to a world that's strangely quiet . . . and eerily like her own, yet Elsewhere harbors dark secrets--and Morton, an undersized boy with an outsize temper.

As she and Morton form an uneasy alliance, Olive finds herself ensnared in a plan darker and more dangerous than she could have imagined, confronting a power that wants to be rid of her by any means necessary. It's up to Olive to save the house from the dark shadows, before the lights go out for good.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year?

I was lucky: I grew up in a house full of books, which made it seem like it was full of other things—things like hobbits and magical stuffed animals and big friendly giants and vampire rabbits. My mother was an English teacher, and my brothers and I learned to read when we were very young, thanks to her—and to the set of colorful alphabet magnets that hung on the refrigerator door. (To this day, each letter of the alphabet has a specific color in my mind.)

But even before I could read to myself, I was read to by my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and babysitters. I would beg my parents for stories about when they were little or about when Grandma and Grandpa were little.

My mother would even make up stories for us, usually involving me and my brothers. (I remember a saga involving an imaginary mean girl who moved onto our street and the continuing drama of a leprechaun who fell into my littlest brother’s diaper pail.) By the time I was three years old, I was a story junkie.

The corners of my favorite childhood books are worn soft from so much touching. Some of their pages are rumpled and stiff from falling in the bathtub; others have been smudged with dog drool or splattered with the pink milk from bowls of Lucky Charms.

There are certain books that I loved so much, I would get to the last page, flip to the front, and begin them again immediately. The worlds I found inside of these books were just as real to me, if not more real, than the one that existed around me.

My favorite childhood books and authors—especially those that I read again and again—practically became part of my genetic makeup.

For better or for worse, those books were the foundation for my own formation as a writer. The writers that I think had the deepest impact on me were those I began reading when I was very little; writers like A.A. Milne, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll. I loved books that frightened me and books that made me laugh, and I especially loved books that did both.

A few years after learning to read to myself, I started reading aloud to my younger brothers. We’d pile onto the couch or into the backseat of the car with the latest Calvin and Hobbes collection by Bill Watterson (Andrews and McMeel, 1987-) or an installment of the Bunnicula series by James Howe (Avon, 1979 – 1987).

When I started writing The Books of Elsewhere, my intention was to write something my brothers and I would have liked when we were kids—something we would have read aloud to each other and laughed about and been a bit delightfully scared by. Writing these books has been like revisiting some of the best parts of my childhood.

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

My favorite fantasy works are set in the real world. I love it when unlikely things happen in places that could actually exist; it makes the ordinary, everyday world seem full of potential magic. The Hundred Acre Wood could be any little forest. Roald Dahl’s witches convene in an ordinary hotel. Calvin and Hobbes live in a very normal house in a very normal town, but their daily lives are crammed with adventure.

The setting of The Books of Elsewhere is sort of a world within a world. The outer world is an old stone house, which could exist almost anywhere in reality—and I hope that there’s at least one creepy old house that scares away trick-or-treaters and inspires morbid rumors in everyone’s hometown.

I intentionally avoided naming the town or state where the house is located, because I wanted this outer layer of the setting to feel universal. I even tried not to give away too many climate-related clues, but this is tricky to maintain, especially now that I’m writing the third volume…

In any case, this outer setting is based on memory and observation, combining a decrepit Victorian mansion in the town where I grew up with parts of my grandparents’ old house, like their cluttered attic and terrifying basement.

That setting—the old stone house—is where the whole story began. I had that house waiting in the back of my mind, and I knew I wanted to fill it with an eccentric, out-of-place, scientifically minded sort of family, who turned out to be the Dunwoodys. From there, I got to build the house in my imagination, deciding what each room and hallway and dark corner looked like.

While this outer world is concrete and limited, the inner world that exists entirely inside of the old stone house is flexible and almost infinite. The inner world, of course, is Elsewhere: the alternate reality inside of the paintings that hang on the house’s walls.

Like a lot of kids, I used to imagine that objects had a secret life—that stuffed animals sat up and started talking as soon as we left the room or that all the food in the fridge played hide-and-seek once the door was shut and the light clicked off.

I also liked to imagine that the people inside of paintings could move and speak and go on about their days when no one was watching. I think that’s where the idea of Elsewhere came from.

Constructing Elsewhere and figuring out how the paintings worked was more complicated than building the outer world. The paintings are magical, so they don’t behave according to the laws of the real world, but they have their own logic and this logic needs to be consistent.

As the plot developed, it forced me to make decisions about how it feels to climb into a painting, what paintings can do or can’t do, how things from the real world can impact the painted world, and so on.

While Olive discovered the paintings, I got to discover them, too, one by one, and to decide what sort of inner world their painter would have created.

Cynsational Notes

From Indiebound: "A two-time Pushcart nominee for poetry, Jacqueline West lives in Chilton, Wisconsin. This is her first novel."

Friday, October 01, 2010

Guest Post: Jacqueline Jules on What If You Had a Superpower?

By Jacqueline Jules

As a child, I loved warm, windy weather, just before a big rain. You could smell the moisture in the air. The trees would bend and wave their branches as if saying, “Come on!”

With the wind blowing across my face, it felt like just a little bit of speed would lift me into the air.

I had a friend named Ginger who agreed with me. We would pretend we were horses, shaking our hair as if it were a mane, and run into the wind, ready for magical wings to sprout from our backs.

Most kids entertain the fantasy of flying at some time in their childhoods. Many also dream of having superpowers. What if it actually happened? How would it change your life? Could you still be an ordinary kid?

That was my question as I began Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, illustrated by Miguel Benitez (Whitman, 2010). I was working as an elementary school librarian and fielding a frequent request: “Do you have a book with a superhero?”

Many of my students were learning English as a second language. The books they wanted to read often had too much text for them to manage. So I wondered if it was possible to write an easy-to-read chapter book for them.

When it comes to books, an author-librarian is like a mother. If a child wants brownies and there are none in the house, many mothers are motivated to bake. Likewise, when I heard a repeated request from my students, I was motivated to write.

So I imagined one of my good-natured, lovable students with superpowers. How would it enhance or complicate his life?

In Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, Freddie receives a mysterious box with super-powered purple sneakers. They give him the amazing ability to race the metro train and win. The next morning, he goes to school, armed with super speed, and ready to be a hero. But it’s not that easy, as Freddie relates:

“I wanted to save a kid from a burning building or catch a criminal. Saving a cat would have been okay, too. But it’s not that easy to be a hero when you go to elementary school. No one falls out of high windows. We don’t even have a second story at Starwood Elementary. No one seems to need hero stuff. They need left-behind lunches and library books.”

Most of us like the idea of a magical power, but we’re not quite willing to give up our real lives to have it. The conflict between getting the fantasy you wish for and maintaining a normal life intrigues me.

That’s why I knew that Freddie would be a superhero living in an apartment building similar to the homes of my students.

In the first book of the Zapato Power series, Freddie Ramos Takes Off, Freddie receives his special powers.

In the second book, Freddie Ramos Springs into Action, Freddie must learn how to control his powers. How do you play basketball with your friends or participate in gym if you have super speed?

The third book in the series, scheduled for spring 2011, Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, gives Freddie the opportunity to use his powers for a public rescue.

But in all three books, he must deal with the joy and the frustration of having superpowers in an ordinary world.

How would your life change if you suddenly had the ability to fly?

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

Griffin Penshine is always making wishes. But when a sinister old woman tricks her into accepting a box of eleven shiny Indian Head pennies from 1897, Griffin soon learns these are no ordinary pennies, but stolen wishes.

This box of labeled pennies comes with a horrible curse: People in possession of the stolen coins are Wish Stealers, who will never have their wishes granted.... In fact, the opposite of what they've wished for will happen. Griffin must find a way to return these stolen wishes and undo the curse if her own wishes are to come true.

But how can Griffin return wishes to strangers who might not even be alive? Her journey leads her to ancient alchemists, Macbeth's witches, and a chance to help people in ways she never imagined, but the temptation of the Wish Stealers' dark and compelling power is growing stronger. Can Griffin reverse the curse in time to save herself and the people she loves?

Tracy Trivas's rich and imaginative début novel introduces a talent as bright and sparkling as Griffin's pennies.

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Wish Stealers" 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: October 31. Sponsored by Simon & Schuster; U.S. entries only.

More News

Congratulations to Julie Gardner Berry and Sally Gardner on the launch of their Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series (Grosset & Dunlap, 2010)! Number 1 The Rat Brain Fiasco and #2 Curse of the Bizaro Beetle are now available.

Interview with Children's Book Press Director Lorraine Garcia-Nakata by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "Now rounding midway toward its fourth decade, our small but influential press is gaining steam because the message of “culture as asset” is once again important given the mercurial nature of current national commentary and public exchanges on race and identity."

Cynsational Blogger Tip: Ask first before blogging about a private and/or for-a-fee speech, workshop or other related event, online or off. Speakers set their rates with the understanding that they may give the talk again. Err on the side of courtesy and respecting other writers' ownership of their work.

Censorship and the Right to Read from Children's-YA Literature Resources. Note: this is a page on my main author site dedicated to free speech. What youth literature resources should I add? Write me, message me, or leave a comment at Cynsations at LiveJournal or MySpace.

Author-Poet Interview: Charles R. Smith, Jr. from Writing and Ruminating. Peek: "It’s a straight-ahead novel, but my experience in writing poetry helped me focus on individual words and creating clear pictures and snappy dialogue." Note: Charles is referring to Chameleon (Candlewick, 2008, 2010). See also a Q&A with Charles from Candlewick (PDF).

Cynsational Author Tip: be mum on your book's chances of winning a literary award. It's exciting, I know, to have a buzzed book. But stay cool, dignified, and let others toot that particular tune on your book's behalf.

Writers Need Cheerleaders by Laini Taylor from Grow Wings. Peek: "Writers need cheerleaders. Before feedback. Before editing. Before almost anything else but snack-making, we need to be convinced and reminded that we are good. Feedback of the critical sort, however constructive and wise, can be deadly if it comes too soon."

Speak Loudly: "...a group of teachers, librarians, bloggers, and authors who have come together to speak out against the censorship of media materials for teens. We’re a community of people raising their voices together." See also the Speak Loudly blog.

Leah Hultenschmidt is the new senior acquisitions editor for the Fire (YA) imprint at Sourcebooks. Source: Joy Preble from Joy's Novel Idea. Note: Find out what Leah's looking for in terms of YA novels.

Cover Stories: The Mermaid's Mirror by L.K. Madigan from Melissa Walker. Peek: "I loved the girl's hair, and the water droplets effect, but the blue graphic didn't really convey anything about the story. Only the word 'mermaid' in the title hinted that it might be a fantasy."

Saundra Mitchell on Banned Books from Mundie Moms. Peek: "Reading books that reflected my neighborhood took away my shame, and replaced it with possibility. Other people had seen terrible things, and lived in terrible places, but they got to leave. They learned to fly planes and write books and build buildings and every remarkable, possible thing. I wasn't limited by the place I lived. I was limited only by myself."

Perfect Picture Book Friends: recommended reads from ReaderKidZ.

On Being a Young Author or Does Age Matter? by Kate Coursey, age 17, from Suzette Saxton at QueryTracker Peek: "There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young author, but in the end, it comes down to the writing, the characters, and whether or not you have the dedication to see a novel through to the finish."

Picture Book Queries by Mary Kole from Peek: "When I see picture book queries — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — I keep it very simple." Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Magazine Markets for Children's Writers 2011 and Book Markets for Children's Writers 2011 (Institute of Children's Literature, 2010) are now available. From the promotional copy: "The 650+ magazines listed in Magazine Markets...published nearly 35,000 articles and stories last year alone. Of those submissions, nearly 7,500 were by previously unpublished authors and almost 11,000 were by writers new to that magazine. Book Markets...lists over 590 publishers that combined to produce more than 28,000 titles. Of those titles, nearly 2,400 were by previously unpublished authors, and more than 2,800 were by writers new to the publishing house."

Cynsational Author-Blogger Tip: multicultural books live and die by word of mouth. If you care about such books--your own or those by other folks--engage in consistent outreach and help build a more supportive community. Note: just passing on a related link can help!

The Drive-By Signing by April Henry. Peek: "...if you're smart and have the energy, you'll have found out whether the escort planned to give the stores a heads-up about your visit."

Author Interview: Tameka Fryer Brown by Nathalie Mvondo from Multiculturalism Rocks. Peek: "This manuscript...was also the one through which I acquired an agent. Both agent and editor desired it because of the multicultural aspect. I know this is not always the case, but it just goes to show that there are publishers out there who truly mean it when they say they are looking for multiculti lit."

Selecting Children's and Young Adult Literature about American Indians by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Bibliography of recommendations; PDF option.

God Is in the Details by Patrick from Peek: "Given just the right emphasis, a detail enters the reader's mind, delineates the boundaries of the characters' world, and then fades. The reader picks up the tension but never traces it to the puddle of condensation growing around the water pitcher or to the flickering fluorescent light behind the counter."

McMakin Literary Agency
: a new agency, founded by Jordan McMakin, representing young adult and middle grade fiction. Peek: "Before opening McMakin Lit, Jordan worked in editorial at Penguin Group (USA) and Disney*Hyperion Books in New York City." Source: Austin SCBWI.

The Evolution of the Literary Agent by Jane Friedman from Writer's Digest. Peek: "Can publishers’ royalties and sales continue to support the agency business model? Is it allowable for an agent to find other ways to make money from clients, aside from selling books to publishers?" Note: not focused on children's-YA book agents, but some global considerations/trends still apply.

Secrets of Facebook by Darcy Pattison from PR Notes. Peek: "Unfortunately, Facebook is not forgiving. You make an ill-advised decision early–when you know so little about how it works–and you’re stuck. I’m keeping my two separate accounts; but I wish I’d know about the Lists so it was easier." See also Darcy on Villains Don't Always Wear Black.

Adventure Annie Book & Backpack Giveaway for Kindergarten & Preschool Teachers from Toni Buzzeo. Peek: "...ten backpacks stuffed with Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten, illustrated by Amy Wummer (Dial, 2010) as well as her professional book, ABC, Read to Me: Teaching Letter of the Week in the Library and Classroom (Upstart)." Drawing: 10/8/10.

Suggest an African-American Author to be featured as part of the annual 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature. Peek: "We need your help. We’re looking for the best new and unnoticed works by African-American authors. From picture books to novels, books fresh off the presses to those that have lurked in the background unsung for months or years–whatever books you like, we want to know." Note: Nominations accepted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 31. See more information.

Spell Check Will Fail You Every Time: Fun with Homophones from Tracy Marchini. Peek: "Before you send off that query letter or manuscript, I am sure that you are spell checking. However, there are still those dastardly words that will technically be spelled correctly, but the usage will be incorrect." Peek: " a freelance writer and professional manuscript critiquer. Before launching her own editorial service, she worked for Curtis Brown, Ltd. for four years."

Split Blog Tour & Charity Auction

To honor National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, author Swati Avasthi has combined a blog tour--beginning today--for her debut novel, Split (Knopf, 2010), with a charity auction. Over 40 authors, agents and editors have donated manuscript critiques, personalized books, and more to an online auction that anyone –reader, writer, book lover -- can bid on and buy. All proceeds go to the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

In addition to the auction, Avasthi is donating $1/comment on her 26-stop, month-long blog tour, coordinated by Kari at Teen (Book) Scene. If she reaches her goal and cap of $250, she will double the donation.

Button for going to the blog tour schedule (“Follow”):

Blog Tour

Button for going to the charity auction site for the event (“Auction”):


Read a Cynsations interview with Swati.

Cynsational Screening Room

Congratulations to G. Neri for his fifth starred review for Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, illustrated by Randy duBurke (Lee & Low, 2010). See Inside the Writer's Studio with G. Neri from Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "My theme, I guess, is about finding your way through the urban jungle by stepping through unexpected doors that open and change your life."

Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty from Greg Neri on Vimeo.

Check out the book trailer for Freefall by Mindi Scott (Simon Pulse, 2010). Source: Erika Breathes Books.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford on pitching a manuscript. Recorded on February 21, 2010 at San Miguel Writers Workshop, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

From the Central Rappahanock Regional Library (and various branches) in Virginia, a musical shout out in support of libraries--the feel-good video of the week! "Hey, hey!"

NY-NJ-CT Bound

Attention New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut-based Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers and University Professors of YA Literature or Writing! I'm going to be spending some time in your area in early-to-mid February in conjunction with the launch of Blessed (PDF). If you'd like me to visit your school, library or school, write me at cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com, and I'll refer you to the appropriate contact at Candlewick Press. Thanks!

More Personally

Thank you to ReaderKidz for hosting me this month as an author in residence! Check out Cynthia's Story and Your Friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith (a letter to young readers). Note: author Tameka Fryer Brown is also featured!

Of Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, Nov. 11, 2010), Kirkus cheers: "This original Southwestern tall tale has an easy rhythm, and repeated phrases and playful type make reading aloud a pleasure. The exuberant, smooth-edged illustrations feature exaggerated, open mouths (especially Holler's) and visually emphasize the chaos-inducing effects of his voice.... A rambunctious, can't-lose read-aloud no one will want to hush."

Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000) was featured in the Reading Is Fundamental Multicultural Books Display at the Macy's Fifth Annual Spelling Bee on Sept. 26 at Macy's Herald Square in New York City.

Tantalize - Cynthia Leitich Smith by Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: "The story was great, with amazing twists in the plot. The surprises kept coming." See also Steven's review of Eternal.

Interview with Ming Doyle: A Miasma of Paint, Pencil and Ink by Rondal Scott III from Fuel Your Illustration. Ming is the illustrator of the upcoming Tantalize: Kieren's Story, a graphic novel (Candlewick, Aug. 2011). Peek: "Kieren, the main character, may be a teenage werewolf, but he’s somewhat reluctant to face his hairy destiny and he’s wary of the dangers associated with the paranormal. He’s almost a detective before anything else..."

Cynsational Events

Check out the schedule for Texas Book Festival on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 in Austin. Cynthia Leitich Smith will be reading Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Children's Read Me a Story Tent. Her signing will follow immediately afterward at the Children's Signing Tent (13th and Colorado). Note: In a limited early release, Holler Loudly will premier at this event.

"Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction, with Cynthia Leitich Smith" at The 33rd Annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar - Kalamazoo Public Library. The seminar costs $40 (lower student rates are available) and is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Nov. 5. Note: Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon will also present a book talk, and additional speakers are Gillian Engberg, Booklist editor, and Debbie Reese, UIUC professor. See more on the speakers.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Guest Post: Jenny Moss on Maps, Tables and Timelines

By Jenny Moss

I love data. I also recognize I have OCD tendencies. Hence, my writing process involves the creation of multiple tables and timelines, and the occasional map.

Once I finish a solid draft of a book, the details can quickly overwhelm me, making me toss and turn at night and look slightly unhinged during the day.

Hallie and Whit Burnett, wife-and-husband co-editors of Story magazine, believed that some of a novelist’s success depends on his or her ability to “keep moving toward some ultimate goal in the distance on several wires, while juggling characters and plot and values at the same time, never losing sight of guidemarks or falling off.” Writing a novel can make for a crazy circus in the OCD mind.

One thing that nags at me is the possibility of inconsistency. That’s when I gleefully (and in full dork power) pull out my Microsoft Office software.

For my YA fantasy Shadow (Scholastic, 2010), in my writer’s folder on my laptop, I have many documents in addition to the drafts of the book - more files than I’ve had with any other novel. Part of the reason for this was because I was creating my own fantasy world set in a fictional kingdom I call Deor; I had a lot of details to keep straight, a lot of wires to walk.

One of my simplest and easiest-to-create files is a cheat sheet, just like the ones some professors would allow for tests in college. My objective was to put the global framework of the book on one piece of paper, so I could reference it when I needed to, getting information at a glance. (Also, for a time in the future when someone like Charlie Rose might call me and ask details about my book, I’d have a cheat sheet to refer to when I forgot the plot.)

The subtitles for my cheat sheet: "plot," "setting," "internal goal of Shadow" – who is the title character, "mythology," and "names and meaning." A cheat sheet can help the can’t-see-the-forest writer refocus on the key elements of the book and remain true to those.

On the other end of the spectrum, the file that is the largest and took the most time to create is a character chart: a table listing physical characteristics, emotional concerns, and goals of the characters. It’s only two columns: "character" (which includes "the weather" and "terrain") and "description."

To build the table, I copied and pasted references to each character from the text of the book into the "description" column of the chart, also listing the page number on which the reference was found. A row was devoted to each character.

When I finished the table, I read through the descriptions of each character, checking for consistency. Although by that time, just in the making of the table, I had already discovered most of the issues. The character chart I made for Shadow is 25 pages long.

Another worry is character relationships: Is there consistency in how the characters treat, converse with, and react to one another? Using Excel, I made a Relationship chart. The first column lists the chapters. The column headings consist of the different relationships: how does Shadow relate/see/think about Kenway, Kenway to Shadow, Fyren to Shadow, Shadow to the queen, etc.

I looked at each scene from each character’s point of view and filled in my spreadsheet. What I’d discovered – to my surprise – was that I had been fairly consistent in the way the characters reacted to one another. But there were some inconsistencies I tweaked as a result of the chart.

If you don’t feel you’re overwhelmed enough by the details of your novel, you can always throw in a road trip. If you do, a journey table can help keep things straight.

In Shadow, because the mode of travel involves walking and riding horseback in different conditions (e.g., flat dirt path, wagon-rutted road, swampy area), the travel times vary. So I took out the map of my fictional kingdom of Deor so I could add detail to it. Using graph paper and a ruler (which is a little like wearing suspenders and a belt), I made a to-scale map, placing all the towns, the type of terrain – hilly, flat, mountainous, forested, swampy – and rivers and streams.

Next, I researched travel times. How long would it take someone to ride sixty miles on horseback on a narrow trail? What if there were two people – who were not getting along very well – on one horse?

Finally, I could make my table. The first column listed all the legs of the journey, from the castle to a particular spot (which I won’t state here so as not to give anything away), from that particular spot to another – also secret – particular spot. The top row had headings for travel conditions (i.e., terrain, type of travel, and moon phase), speed of travel (gathered from research), and distance from place to place, then the resulting time, and the specific day and time of day. Unfortunately, I did this after I’d written my solid draft, which meant a lot of changes.

Timelines are also helpful for the OCD writer. I developed one for the plot of Shadow, so that I wouldn’t mix up what happened to whom and when. But I also needed a timeline listing events, referred to by the characters, but not seen by the reader. Some of these took place during the timeline of the story, but “off-stage.” Some occurred before chapter one began: the story before the story.

Other files can be created to be used for quick reference during the revision (or drafting) process, e.g., a chapter summaries chart, with one-paragraph summaries and the characters introduced in the chapters.

If you’re a fantasy writer, you might consider writing short Word files with descriptions of random things about your world. For example, for Shadow, I created files with details about my fictional kingdom, e.g., "geological and environmental Notes on Deor," "a short political history of Deor."

For an OCD writer, particularly a fantasy writer, creating your own world can be nerve-wracking. But maps, tables, and timelines can keep you from falling off in the high wire balancing act of novel writing.

Despite all this work, though, when asked questions about the book, I still forget details. But I do sleep better. And I’m ready if Charlie Rose calls and wants to know why it took Shadow so long to escape to that secret spot and what she really felt about Kenway during that particular scene. Here, let me get out my chart....

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy: "Shadow, an orphan girl, is given the duty to watch the queen's every move. When the castle is thrown into chaos after the queen is poisoned, Shadow escapes with a young knight, whom she believes was betrothed to the queen. As mystery builds, and romantic tension does, too, Shadow begins to wonder what her role in the kingdom truly is."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Author Interview: Sara Pennypacker on the Clementine Series

Sara says, "Sara Pennypacker has been writing books for children for seventeen years now. She continues to believe that any day now she will get it right..."

What were you like as a young reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite books?

I remember feeling that books were a refuge. I'd read anything about humans connecting with animals, anything about secret worlds or survival.

Among my favorites were The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952), Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877), The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938), and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719).

Back when I was young, there really weren't many books written especially for kids--I often wonder which books would be worn to tatters if I were ten years old right now...

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Seeing how my own children loved books, and discovering how fabulous the books were. I fell in love with children's books--it's the only way to describe it.

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

It was a pretty even path, I guess. Once I became entranced with children's books, I couldn't get enough of reading them and learning about the craft. I'd always been a natural storyteller, and I loved language and challenges, and I'm a ridiculous perfectionist--all these things were helpful in getting my first manuscript accepted.

Could you update us on your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Well, the biggest update news would be that the Stuart books--Stuart's Cape and Stuart Goes to School--have just been reissued as one book, The Amazing World of Stuart, illustrated by Martin Matje (Orchard, 2010). It's a lovely edition, with full color illustrations now and larger, friendlier type.

I'm also pleased that Sparrow Girl, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka (Hyperion, 2009), my picture book influenced by Mao Tse Tung's war against sparrows, is being read in elementary schools to spark discussions of environmental justice.

Congratulations on the release of Clementine, Friend of the Week, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Hyperion, 2010)! Could you tell us about the genesis of this character/series?

Oh, man, I love that kid. Clementine is based on my own two kids, especially my son who suffered with attention issues in school, so she feels very real to me. I get all goofy and choked up when I talk about her, because I so admire how she manages to stay positive and cheerful and sweet-hearted with the challenges she faces, even given the supportive adults in her world.

Clementine is a little more impulsive, distractible, and active, than other kids, okay, fine. But she's also very artistic, innovative and empathetic.

Besides writing about a kid like that, I really wanted to explore and celebrate a fairly normal (what's normal, though?) family--a family that's doing a pretty good job raising their kids. It's a little harder to come up with the necessary tension and conflict in the plots with such warmth and support all around Clementine, but on the other hand, it's very satisfying.

In the new book, I felt Clementine was ready for a real challenge: I took away her kitten, arranged for him to get lost in Boston. Very difficult--I sobbed along with Clementine as I wrote those scenes, and felt as if I were a child-abuser, doing something so cruel.

I recently finished book #5, by the way, and let me tell you, there's a big surprise coming...something that was a complete surprise to me, too!

What advice to you have for writers interested in crafting a children's book series?

I guess I would say to develop a character whom you, as the author, really, really love. If Clementine were real, I'd take a bullet for her--seriously. I think you need that for two reasons.

First, you're going to have to live with that character in your head and heart for a long time--writing a series is a little like having a benign case of multiple personality disorder. If you get tired of him/her, it will show in the later books.

But second, with a really rich character, plot takes care of itself. I feel if I just let the reader hang out with Clementine, hearing her impressions of the world and watching her respond to everyday situations, that's enough for a book. Whatever happens will be interesting because Clementine herself is interesting.

What did Marla's illustrations bring to your books/character?

Where do I start? When I saw the first sketches, I was in the Hyperion offices in New York, and I just broke down and cried--all the characters were perfect, perfect, and I could tell Marla loved them as much as I did.

I often say that I never need to write a word about how much Clementine's family loves each other because Marla's drawings show it so well. Marla and I have the same vision for the book--a bit retro, strongly character-driven, funny but loving--and we're both slow-working's the perfect pairing. Plus, of course, she's a genius!

Looking back, what was the single best decision you made in terms of advancing your craft as a writer?

Several years ago, I had an experience that profoundly changed the way I thought about writing for children. I just happened to hear someone quote Carl Jung - apparently Jung was asked during an interview why there was evil in the world. His answer was, "Young man, there is evil in the world because people can't tell their stories."

That resonated with me, and I started to think about it a lot in terms of children.

I realized it takes four things to tell one's story: a strong voice, language skills, a platform and an audience. Most children don't possess those things, but I am lucky enough to have all four.

Since then, I have tried to write for children a different way--as though I am telling their stories, because I can when they can't. I like to imagine my readers holding up my books to their adults and saying, "This is how I feel. This is what it's like for me."

I think it's given me a better voice, and better things to say.

How do you balance being a writer with the demands of being an author (contracts, promotion, etc.)?

I've never been successful at that. I do as much as I can of the writing (the part I love) and as little as possible of the other, and what I do on the business end of things I am truly terrible at--really embarrassingly incompetent.

My agent makes life a lot easier, of course, but recently I made a brilliant move--I hired my daughter as my personal-assistant/business coordinator. It sounds like a luxury, but having her allows me to spend my energy on writing and doing some appearances, and I am more productive.

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

I will try not to sound like a curmudgeon here, but...

What I hope happens is that it stays the same! Well, I'm progressive in that I always want children's books to get better, braver, more brilliant, take on more things, push the limits, etc.

But I admit to being worried about the e-book trend--or at least to the part of it that threatens to remove the gatekeepers. I just don't see agents and editors as gatekeepers--to me, they're more like curators, alchemists and coaches.

I worry that in a few years, parents and readers will be overwhelmed with e-reader content choices, very few of which will be good enough to have made it through the traditional publishing route.

And the word "content"! Every time I hear "content" instead of "story" or "literature," I cringe!

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

Hm.... Maybe to fly more, and worry about your wings less.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Besides a few more Clementine (we're planning on seven all together) I'm moving toward older readers. My next book is a mid-grade novel, Summer of the Gypsy Moths (Balzer and Bray, 2011), which explores a friendship forged under pretty dire circumstances.

Currently, I'm playing around with a big idea--big in scope and requiring a lot of research and thought--that may be a mid-grade or may be a YA. I can't talk more about it yet, but ask me again in a few months...

Cynsational Notes

From Scholastic: "Sara Pennypacker...was a painter before becoming a writer and has two absolutely fabulous children who are grown now. When she was in school, she never had any problem at all paying attention. Okay, fine. That last part was about somebody else. Sara lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts."

In this video from Scholastic, Sara talks about the Clementine series

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guest Post: Melissa Iwai on Soup Day

By Melissa Iwai

Though I’ve already illustrated about 20 books, Soup Day (Henry Holt, 2010) is the first book I’ve also written.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s story, but the writing has never come easy to me the way drawing and painting has.

Soup Day came to me as a gift: I dreamed of a beautiful painting in which an old woman was chopping onions and a little girl was helping her.

I didn’t think much about it. A few days later, frustrated with another manuscript I was working on, I switched gears and began writing a new story.

The old woman and little girl from my dream became a mom and daughter, and I wrote of how they spend the morning buying, preparing, and cooking soup on a cold, wintry day.

I think the story flowed out easily because it combines my two passions: cooking and art.

It’s also based on my experiences cooking with my young son, Jamie, and the fun we have making something together.

Writing, making art, or cooking---they are all pretty much the same thing when you distill it down to their essence (creating something out of “nothing”). Only the medium is different.

Whenever you create a recipe, you have planning and preparation and expectation and experimentation and invention, and the final product is always unique. Even if you follow an existing recipe, there are other variables involved such as your ingredients and/or ratios of measurements which may fluctuate. If you change the vegetables, pasta or seasonings you add to your soup pot, the outcome will always be something original and maybe a little unexpected (hopefully in a good way!).

The same is true with creating a piece of art and writing. You may have a vision of what you want the result to be, but in the end, it is often something different and surprising.

As with writing and art making, cooking can enrich a child’s world. There are the more obvious lessons of counting, measuring, and weighing involved. But there is also that wonder and joy of creation – making something out of “nothing.”

I think cooking can also foster a sense of empowerment in children, much like expressing themselves with words and pictures. And if they are involved in the process of cooking, they are more likely to eat their creation!

I got my son to eat sautéed mushrooms that way. There’s no way he would eat it if I handed it to him on a plate. But because I let him cut the mushrooms with a plastic knife (with my help) before I sautéed them in butter, he could claim a sense of ownership, and he happily gobbled them up.

This sense of pride, as well as the bonding via the creative experience are what I find to be the most valuable aspects about cooking with children. It’s the unspoken message of Soup Day, and what I hope it inspires.

Cynsational Notes

See also Melissa's blog, The Hungry Artist.

In the video below, Melissa shows us how to make the soup from Soup Day.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Voice: Matt Myklusch on Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation

Matt Myklusch is the first-time author of Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation (Aladdin, 2010). From the promotional copy:

All Jack Blank knows is his bleak, dreary life at St. Barnaby’s Home for the Hopeless, Abandoned, Forgotten, and Lost, an orphanage that sinks further into the swampland of New Jersey with each passing year. His aptitude tests predict that he will spend a long, unhappy career as a toilet brush cleaner.

His only chance at escape comes through the comic books donated years ago to the orphanage that he secretly reads in the dark corners of the library.

Everything changes one icy gray morning when Jack receives two visitors that alter his life forever. The first is a deadly robot straight out of one of his comic books that tries its best to blow him up. The second is an emissary from a secret country called the Imagine Nation, an astonishing place where all the fantastic and unbelievable things in our world originate--including Jack.

Jack soon discovers that he has an amazing ability--one that could make him the savior of the Imagine Nation and the world beyond, or the biggest threat they've ever faced.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am a plotter and a planner. That’s how my brain works with everything, so why should writing be any different?

For me, writing without an outline is like trying to drive cross-country armed with only a map of Delaware, Utah, and California. Certainly, it can be done, and there are plenty of writers who don’t need a map at all. They can make it from NYC to LA just by going west, but not me. I need to plan out the route so I know where I'm going. Even then, I like to have GPS so I don’t get lost.

Having said that, it's important to note that the route is not carved in stone. I might still wander off and visit random tourist attractions along the way, but only if they are really cool, like the World’s Largest Rubber Band Ball or something (located somewhere near Topeka, I believe). [Actually, it's in Lauderhill, Florida.]

I start off with a basic idea of what I want to do. I don't know where the initial spark comes from, but I usually know the broad strokes of my story... the feel of it, the three acts, the turning points, and maybe a few big moments I am trying to create and make readers care about.

Then, I write a stream-of-consciousness mess of an outline the includes everything from basic scene overviews to specific lines of dialogue to notes to myself. It starts out as something that only I can understand, but over time, I break that down into chapters and clean it up.

Eventually, I have a map to my story, but that's all it is. A road map. A guide. It's not a story yet. It's not even interesting yet. The characters are what make it interesting.

This is where a lot of new writers trip up when struggling with plot. They focus too much on plot. I used to do this all the time. I used to write stories where the characters weren’t people, they were just tools I used for advancing plot points. As readers, you and I are never going to care about tools. We want characters that fascinate us, infuriate us, make us laugh, and more.

If you don’t know what comes next in your story, sometimes you have to get to know your characters a little better. What do they want? What are they afraid of? What have they been through in life that makes them who they are?

All of this information might not even make it into your actual story, but if you know these things about your characters, then you’ll know what they would do in any given situation. You’ll know what each individual character would say and how they would say it.

I’m a plotter and a planner, but that’s just how I like to work. When I’m writing that first stream-of-consciousness outline, the question of “what comes next?” is usually answered by the characters. That’s because I know how they would react to what is going on in the story. And, this might sound weird, but even though you’re the one creating the characters, sometimes what they do can surprise you.

Any road trip you might take is only as good as the people you're going with. As a writer, you are taking your readers on a journey, but they aren’t riding with you, they are riding with your characters. At some point, you have to sit back and let your characters drive.

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

With Jack Blank, I wanted to showcase the comic book world that fired my imagination as a kid, and introduce it to an audience that hasn’t seen it before.

I thought about how in the movies, it’s always just one superhero versus one villain, and the hero is usually the only superhero in the world.

It’s not like that in the comic books. In the comics, Iron-Man, Thor, Spider-Man, the X-Men… they’re all running around the same city fighting an endless supply of bad guys. It’s normal for people there to see heroes fighting villains in the middle of the street on a random Tuesday. That fully developed superhero world really doesn’t exist outside of comic books.

In this novel, I wanted to create my own superhero world. I wanted to show people who might otherwise never pick up a comic book how much fun that world could be, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around it until I drew it.

I am a very visual person, and drawing is another big part of my process. I like to really be able to see my characters and the places they inhabit. That might not have been the case if I wrote for another genre, but with superhero/fantasy-based stories, it’s ideal. Drawing really helps me get into the world of my characters, and I absolutely need to get into their world if I’m going to have any hope of leading a reader through it.

My thinking is, I have to know that place inside and out. There can’t be any ambiguity on my part, or the reader won’t know where I’m taking them. (If I can’t see it, they won’t see it).

Luckily, growing up, I spent a lot of time drawing and creating my own comic book characters. Over the years, I accumulated enough of them to fill a whole world and then some. That world became the Imagine Nation, but the question still remained, what would this world look like?

The comic book world has everything— magic, sci-fi, superheroes, kung fu, fantasy, and more. What aspects of the comic universe was I going to include? It wasn’t until I drew the city where all the heroes, villains, ninjas, aliens, and robots lived that I finally got a handle on the Imagine Nation. I started thinking about a city with different boroughs, each one dedicated to a different corner of the comic book world. That’s when things really started to click.

I think at some point every kid wants to grow up to be a superhero. That’s why I decided the best way to introduce the Imagine Nation to readers was through the eyes of a child. That led me to Jack Blank, a young orphan with a mysterious past, and a future that could see him become anything from hero to villain to lowly toilet-brush cleaner. When the time came to actually write it all, I just had one rule and that was to have fun doing it.

Cynsational Notes

Matt Myklusch spends his days working for mtvU, MTV's twenty-four hour college network. A lifelong love for comic books inspired him to spend his nights and weekends writing Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, son, and trusty dog, Indy.

Matt discusses Imagine Nation from Simon & Schuster:

Matt offers advice to inspiring writers from Simon & Schuster:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Guest Post: Janet Nolan on The Firehouse Light

By Janet Nolan

Day after day,
year after year,
the lightbulb did not burn out.

The Firehouse Light, illustrated by Marie Lafrance (Tricycle Press, 2010), is the true story of a lightbulb that has been burning in a firehouse for more than one hundred years.

When I first learned there was a lightbulb in Livermore, California that had been burning since 1901, I was intrigued.

I wondered how it was possible, when almost nothing seems to last, that a lightbulb never burned out. For days, I walked around thinking wow, while that lightbulb’s been burning, cars were invented, and so were telephones, televisions, and computers. Cures for diseases were discovered, wars were fought, and roads, highways, and cities built.

And while so much changed culturally, socially, technologically, and economically in American society, a tiny four-watt bulb, made of carbon filament and hand-blown glass, kept burning.

Who couldn’t be intrigued by that?

I just had to know more.

One of the wonderful things about being a children’s writer, is that I have the perfect excuse to pick-up the phone, call a stranger, and say, “I wonder if you have a moment to talk.”

I was lucky to find so many helpful individuals on the other end of the line. Through the amazing generosity of local historians, retired firefighters, and members of the Livermore Heritage Guild, who answered my endless questions, I was able to learn the lightbulb’s story.

It all began in 1901, when fires were fought with bucket brigades and hand-pulled hose carts. The lightbulb, a gift from a local businessman, was placed inside a wooden shack where firefighters stored their equipment. If a fire broke out at night, the lightbulb helped them find their equipment in the dark.

There is a passage in the book that reads, “Beneath a lightbulb that glowed strong and steady, firefighters stepped into their big boots, pulled on their heavy coats, put thick helmets on their heads and switched on their two-way radios. They drove through the growing town’s only traffic signal, honking the horn.”

While the language is simple, the research to verify specific details was extensive. Were the boots thick? Were the coats heavy? What type of communication was used? When, exactly, did Livermore install its first traffic signal?

Details are not only delicious, they tell the bigger story. The installation of a traffic signal in a post-war town represents the impact of cars, and it illustrates a community on the verge of growth and expansion.

The lightbulb no longer hangs in a wooden shack. Today, fifteen feet about the ground, the lightbulb burns inside a state-of-the-art firehouse. Only now, it has its own back-up generator, webcam, website, and thousands of dedicated fans from all around the world.

I am proud to be one of its fans!

Cynsational Notes

Janet Nolan is the author of two other picture books: A Father's Day Thank You, illustrated by Kathi Ember (Albert Whitman, 2007) and The St. Patrick's Day Shillelagh, illustrated by Ben Stahl (Albert Whitman, 2002).

Cover art from The Firehouse Light copyright © 2010 by Marie LaFrance. Published by Tricycle Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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