Friday, December 17, 2010

New Voice: Steve Brezenoff on The Absolute Value of -1

Steve Brezenoff is the first-time author of The Absolute Value of -1 (Carolrhoda LAB, 2010). From the promotional copy:

The absolute value of any number, positive or negative, is its distance from zero: |-1| = 1

Noah, Lily, and Simon have been a trio forever. But as they enter high school, their relationships shift and their world starts to fall apart. Privately, each is dealing with a family crisis—divorce, abuse, and a parent’s illness.

Yet as they try to escape the pain and reach out for the connections they once counted on, they slip—like soap in a shower. Noah’s got it bad for Lily, but he knows too well Lily sees only Simon. Simon is indifferent, suddenly inscrutable to his friends. All stand alone in their heartache and grief.

In his luminous YA novel, Steve Brezenoff explores the changing value of relationships as the characters realize that the distances between them are far greater than they knew.


Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, 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'm afraid I don't use the same method every time. For my short, work-for-hire projects, I always write an outline first. By the time the actual job of writing begins, all that's left is fleshing out the book: give characters voice and depth, describing settings, giving a little blow-by-blow for action scenes, and writing dialogue. I've done so many chapter books like this, it's second nature.

When it comes to longer deeper work (i.e., novels), my current method is a nice combo of plunging and plotting, or as I like to say, pantsing and synopsizing.

I'll typically pants as long as I can--that is, until I feel like I'm positively drowning in words. At that point, I'll do my best to synopsize what I've already done, and what yet needs to be written. That takes a lot of work and patience from me, but it's been the best method I've tried so far.

Once I've got a synopsis that I really like and that doesn't leave holes or protagonists with easy outs (or no out, or no growth, etc.), I "block off" the scenes I need to write and write them. I don't worry about connecting existent scenes or developing scenes as I go. I am perfectly content to simply announce "Cut! Print!" after writing a scene that works.

I've found that if I have all the scenes I need to get a story moving toward its end, the connections will present themselves.

Those that don't probably aren't needed beyond a few sentences or even words-- things like, "It had been three months since . . ." or "The summer went quickly after that. . . ."

They're not brilliant prose, of course, but they do the job, and are typically regarded by readers with about as much attention as the word "said," if they're not overused.

At any rate, with every scene written, all that remains is ordering them properly and getting started with revisions. The word "revisions" gives me a spanking new ulcer, so I'll stop there.

I find this method so appealing because of how much freedom I give myself to start. If I began a novel the same way I begin a chapter book, I'd feel trapped by the constraints of the outline.

Beyond plot itself, though, if I start off pantsing, I let myself feel around the characters and the setting--merely things to be fleshed out by the former process--and they develop organically.

Voice, to me, and particularly in young adult, I think, is the primary connection a reader will have to a book, and if voice can't develop organically, it falls flat. Again, that's for me. Obviously some writers work at voice like an anvil and develop really engaging characters that feel organic.

As to working through struggles, I'd say, try everything--and I mean try every road your protagonist can possibly try, but also try every method that seems viable to you. Don't necessarily stick with one.

And speaking of methods, I'll also plug Cyn Omololu's Nine Steps to Plotting Fiction. I don't think she created it, but I found it first at her blog and I love it.

As someone who's the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I'm first of all very lucky. That's for a number of reasons: my wife supports my writing career completely. This is fairly easy for her because I make a living at it, thanks to so much work-for-hire writing, another of my lucky strokes.

And finally, my wife's family babysits like champions, and I get anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week when my toddler is under an in-law's care.

What this all gets me, however, is structured writing time. I love structured writing time now, but I didn't used to.

Anecdote time! I started college as a creative writing major. I was about halfway through my first basic poetry class when I decided maybe that wouldn't be such a great idea. After all, the professors and TAs expected us to write what they wanted us to write, when they said, That's no way to be creative!

So, I switched my major to general literature and only wrote when I felt inspired. I did write some, sure, and I even took another creative writing class. But I wasn't going to work under those conditions, not if I hoped to produce quality work!

Years later, an editor with whom I worked liked a 25,000 or 30,000 unfinished thing I showed her. She was super amazing about it: giving me notes, asking for more--a finished manuscript. And I was crazy excited. But when did I have time to work on this?

After I got home from my day job and walked the dog and made dinner and ate dinner and probably did some freelance proofreading for extra cash, when there were TV shows on, and I was tired and probably wasn't feeling inspired....

Come on! One simply cannot be expected to create creative creativity under the gun like that. So, I kept the manuscript in the back of mind and left it there, for another few years.

Two years ago, my son was born. I was a freelance writer (ironically, doing plenty of work on deadline, inspiration or not) and working at home, so I became a stay-at-home dad.

Suddenly, my time was far more precious than it used to be. But there was also this little bundle of mortality running around my house (well, slithering, then crawling, then wobbling, but then running). Out of nowhere came this motivation to suck it up, quit whining about inspiration, and get to work on that novel. I joined SCBWI right away, found pockets of hours in my week during which to write and revise, and the rest is history.

That was a long anecdote, but the takeaway isn't complicated: Use the time you have. I don't care if you don't "feel" like it. I don't care if there's a "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" marathon on FX (I can relate, believe me).

When your time is as precious as mine--i.e., when your full-time job is caring for a child or children--you only get an hour here and an hour there. If you don't use it, it's gone. Days go by like that, very quickly. Somehow weeks go by even more quickly. Next thing you know, you haven't written a single thing in six months.

Don't let that happen. No lie on the couch or hour on Twitter or episode of "Buffy" is worth that.

Okay, maybe "Hush." Or "The Body." Or, okay, those season two episodes when Angel goes bad. But that's it. Oh, and the musical.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter today to win the Cynthia Leitich Smith Grand Prize Giveaway from Book Club as part of Book Club's 31 Days of Giveaways!

The prize is:

a signed Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 2011) ARC;

Quincie's Chicago-themed road trip journal (lined for your own notes);

and a plush toy bat with purple ears and bow tie!

To enter, you'll need to surf to the immediately preceding link answer the following questions:

(1) In the 2003 movie "Elf," what are the four main food groups that elves stick to?

(2) What did I give you last Christmas, that the very next day, you gave it away? (Hint: The name of of the carol is in the question.)

(3) Rudolf the red nose reindeer was made fun of by the other reindeer until what happened?


Surf over to answer in the comments section of today's prize post at Crissi's Blog. The winner will be randomly selected from the correct answers and awarded within 24 hours.

Good luck, and happy holidays!

See also a Cynsations interview with Cristina Brandao on Book Club at facebook. Note: Book Club is currently 12,516 members strong.

More News & Giveaways

What Children's Publishers Are Doing in the Apps Space: Houses Are Testing, Experimenting by Rachel Deahl from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Bloomsbury is creating its first app this season, based on Carrie Jones’s YA paranormal romance series Need. A spokesperson for the house said the planned release date for the app is December, to coincide with the publication of the third book in the series, Entice (2010)." Source: Alice Pope's SCBWI Blog.

Congratulations to Paul B. Janeczko on the success of The Dark Game: True Spy Stories (Candlewick, 2010)! From the promotional copy: "Ever since George Washington used them to help topple the British, spies and their networks have helped and hurt America at key moments in history." The Dark Game is a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults and Booklist said: "With well-chosen subjects (including many women and African Americans who used their marginalized positions to gather information) and contagious enthusiasm for the spy world's 'tantalizing mysteries,' this makes a strong choice for both avid and reluctant readers alike."

Dr. Seuss Author Profile: video about Seuss's life and works by Anita Silvey from about.com.

SCBWI Team Blog Pre-conference Interview with Linda Sue Park by Jolie Stekly from Cuppa Jolie. Peek: "My most valuable tip came from Katherine Paterson, who wrote in an essay about how she tries to finish two pages per day. I read that when I was starting work on my first novel, and it was a huge light-bulb moment. I thought, I can do that!"

Research Advice from National Book Award Winner Kathryn Erskine by Maryann Yin from GalleyCat. Peek: "I think research and attention to detail is crucial to the story’s authenticity."

Interview with Robin McKinley on Pegasus (Putnam, 2010) by Parker Peevyhouse from The Spectacle. Peek: "I did realise [sic] that something the size of pegasi either had hollow bones or some magic to allow them to fly at all, but that kind of explanation or confirmation tends to come later in the story-telling process."

Spilling Ink Short Story Contest from the Official Website of Spilling Ink: The Book. For ages 9-12; deadline Jan. 17; first prize is: "A Skype visit to your class & a signed copy of Spilling Ink. Ellen Potter will chat with you and your class via Skype for a half hour and answer your writing questions." See details.

Figment Looks to Attract Young Writers from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Founded by New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear and former New Yorker managing editor Jacob Lewis, Figment.com is an online writing community aimed at attracting a membership of young people, ranging from kids to teens and older, to post, share and comment on each other’s original writing. Launched this week...." Note: I've had the opportunity to visit with Jacob on a couple of occasions and have participated in a couple of pre-launch activities on the system.

Cynsational Tip: if you're an illustrator, include a link to your book's author. If you're an author, include a link to your book's illustrator. It's gracious, offers readers more information, and, hey, it's their book, too!

How Agents Represent Author/Illustrator Clients by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art."

Congratulations to Tim Wynne-Jones on the release of Rex Zero and the Great Pretender (FSG, 2010)(excerpt)! From the promotional copy: "Rex Zero’s family is moving, again, this time to a different school district, and his old friends will probably forget he even exists. What’s more, a trio of bullies is out to get him. Rex’s wild and funny adventures continue as he stumbles into seventh grade, pretending to be someone he’s not, and using his overactive imagination to resolve one of life’s most vexing problems: just when everything is going well, why does it have to change?" In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls the novel, "Genuinely wholesome, packed with affectionate humor, tension and joy." See also the media kit for Tim's upcoming release, Blink and Caution (Candlewick, March 11, 2011)(PDF).

Re-submissions and Re-querying: Yes or No? by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker. Peek: "What should you do if you’ve queried an agent with sample pages, but by the time they’ve request the partial or full, you’ve made substantial changes to those pages?"

What Makes a Great First Page? by Alvina Ling from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: "I can definitely gauge how talented a writer is based on the first page. In fact, because authors know the first page is so important, they tend to spend a lot of time revising that first page (if they're smart!)."

What To Expect When You're...On Submission by Elizabeth Fama from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "When your agent tells you the names of the editors on your submission list, it’s a little like learning that you’re pregnant.'"

Cover Stories: Matched by Ally Condie from Melissa Walker. Peek: "The dress is beautiful and has significance to the story, as does the bubble/glass world and the color green." Peek: "Matched was just named #1 on the Winter 2010-2011 Kid's Indie Next List. "

Don't Write the Obit For Picture Books Yet by Karen Springen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Several publishers PW spoke with disagreed with the Times reporter who wrote about the declining importance and popularity of picture books. 'I don't really see this phenomenon she's talking about,' said Karen Lotz, publisher of Candlewick Press. 'I definitely don't think it's so bleak,' said Mary Ann Sabia, v-p and associate publisher of Charlesbridge Publishing."

What We Talk About When We Talk about Picture Books by Rebecca Sherman, agent at Writers House, from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: "While I can understand that $17.99 per book prohibits many parents from creating an at home library of books for toddlers, the lack of individual consumers contributing to the picture book economy is more troublesome with the decline of government funding for school and public libraries. This means children may not be exposed to great picture books because of financial restrictions of his parents and her country both."

New Agent Alert: Brianne Mulligan of Movable Type Literary Group by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agent's Editor's Blog. Peek: seeking "high-concept YA and middle grade fiction."

The Very Best Way to Go Out of Print by Laurel Snyder. Peek: "So I asked how many books they had in the warehouse. They told me about 800 copies were left. 800 copies. Only 800? So I did something insane!" See also the Authors Guild Back in Print Program.

I Write History Because I Am History by Saundra Mitchell from Kelsey at The Book Scout. Peek: "I've always loved history, and not in a particularly sterile or scholarly way. When I was a child, I could tell you as much about Tutankhamun's family as I could my own—and once I fell in love with the legacy of a world swallowed by time, I started making connections." Learn more about Saundra's upcoming novel, The Vespertine (Harcourt, March 2011). See also Saundra's blog, Making Up Stuff for a Living.

From Start to Finish by Jim Murphy from I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "...when I do back matter, I ask myself who this is really for. I've noticed in recent years that some writers take a very formal approach to this information, as if they are trying to establish their scholarly street creds for reviewers and award committees. Personally, I think most young readers (and their parents) are scared off by such a heavy-handed, academic approach." Note: Jim is a two-time Newbery Honor Book and Sibert Award winning author. He's also the winner of the 2010 Margaret Edwards Award for significant contribution to young adult literature.

Books, Boots & Buckskin: 2011 Austin Regional SCBWI Conference Contest from ARA Carmen Oliver from Following My Dreams. Prizes include saved front-row seats. Deadline: Feb. 1. Note: conference dates are Feb. 18 and Feb. 19 at St. Edward's University in Austin; see more information.

2010 YA Books Central Reader's Choice Nominations from YABC. Peek: "This year, YABC is hosting our own Reader's Choice Awards for 2010! We'll be collecting your nominations until Sunday, Dec. 19. Then, on Monday the 20th, we'll open the voting for your favorites...." Note: picture book, middle grade, and YA author and book categories. Go nominate!

GregLSBlog Favorites of 2010 from Greg Leitich Smith. Note: book pics from picture books through YA. Here's a peek (above) at his middle grade choices.

Too Many Cooks - How Do You Handle Conflicting Critiques? by Mary Lindsey from QueryTracker. Peek: "First, as with all criticism, do not take it personally or you cannot objectively evaluate the input. Then, consider the source. How well do you know this person? What are his/her qualifications?"

World Building Through Character by Anna Staniszewski from annastan. Peek: "Build as you go, allowing your characters to lead you."

Whether to Give Up on a Project by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: "Sometimes the magic leaves a project. We don't get to the ending, or maybe we don't get to turn that early draft into the book it could be."

Where Do I Go From Here?: 3 Literary Agents, 3 Opinions: a one-day workshop from Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency, Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates, and Ann Tobias of A Literary Agency for Children's Books from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 6 at The New York Open Center, 22 East 30th Street, New York NY 10016. (This event is not affiliated with The New York Open Center.) Fee: $295.00 to February 6, $325.00 thereafter (lunch included). Group size is limited; previous workshops have sold out.

Lindsey Scheibe: new blog from an Austin-based YA writer, represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4E0 Literary Agency. Peek: "For now, I hope to put up three blogs each week. One personal. One writing focused. One highlighting writing related blogs or sites that I admire and find enlightening." More about Lindsey: "She volunteered with Makarios the past two years, as well as visited their missionary school in the Dominican Republic where they service Haitian and Dominican children."

Do What You Do Well by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog - Writer Talk. Peek: "The truth was maybe one or two could write beautiful prose (and this was in a large group of talented writers). Most just didn’t have that gift. But instead of struggling to develop what gifts they did have they got caught up on language because that was what all the teachers praised most."

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus (Egmont, 2010). Anna lives in Austin, Texas; and Shadow Hills is her debut novel.



Check out the book trailer for Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile (Candlewick, 2010). Read a sample chapter (PDF). Bink and Gollie has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. It's been named to the following lists: Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year; Kirkus Reviews - Best Children's Books of the Year; and New York Times Book Review 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books.



Check out the book trailer for Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Scott Dawson (Dutton, 2010). In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, "This debut for both author and illustrator is a winner!" See teacher activities (PDF).



In this video, debut author Trent Reedy and editor Cheryl Klein talk about Words in the Dust, Part I (Arthur A. Levine, Jan. 1, 2011); don't miss part two, immediately below.



In part two, Trent and Cheryl continue their conversation.



Austin Scene

Austin SCBWI members gathered last week at Opal Divine's Marina for fajitas and holiday cheer.


Author-illustrator Don Tate with illustrator Erik Kuntz.

Authors Jessica Lee Anderson and Margo Rabb.

More Personally

I'm honored to announce that my essay, "Isolation," will appear in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (HarperTeen, fall 2011). A percentage of the book's proceeds will go to a national anti-bullying program. See also Anthology to Compile Authors' Personal Stories About Bullying by Sally Lodge from Publishers Weekly.

The Horn Book magazine says of my new picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010): "Lively prose is complemented by an exuberant design and palette. Humorous details are found on every spread... The tornado, with a mouth of its own, adds an extra dab of perfect hilarity. A fabulous read-aloud that everyone will 'HUSH!' to hear." See sidebar for the Holler Loudly teacher guides.

Kid Review: Jake is Blown Away by Holler Loudly from Pat Zietlow Miller at Read, Write, Repeat: Inside the Mind of a Children's Book Lover. Jake's favorite line: "And you’d best skedaddle!" Note: click for the photo of Jake--love it!

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Children's Book Author Interview by Aaron Mead from Children's Books and Reviews. Note: I talk about my writing, life on line, and offer advice to beginners. Peek: "A picture book is like a puzzle, getting just the right combination of words and elements. A novel is more like an endurance trek, uphill in the rain, carrying a rhino on your back. I love both."

Great Gifts for the Paranormal Romantic by Madeline from BookKids at BookPeople in Austin. Suggestions include Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010) and more by other nifty YA fantasy authors.

Steven R. McEvoy says of Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001): "...an amazing story and one I know I will read again and again, for myself and to my daughters." See the whole review.

Thanks also to Katiebuggy129 for this writing project video on Eternal! Cynsational readers--I love the songs and comments! Great voice and humor! Wow!



Bid for a chance to win a piece of unique autographed Critter art to benefit St. Jude. Note: features autographs by a variety of authors, including me. Learn about Critter's travels in the side bar of Christy's Creative Space. Deadline: Dec. 18.

Author Kathi Appelt stopped by for a signed copy of Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010). See a guest post by Kathi on Keeper (Atheneum, 2010) from The Brain Lair. Peek: "Like the whistle, objects in fiction become a tiny bit magical. We call them 'endowed objects,' because we endow them with special properties, special memories, special significance." Visit all the stops on Kathi's blog tour!

And the Christmas train is chugging around the kitchen table.

Link of the Week: Bags get bookish: 'intellectual' clutch bags by Olympia Le-Tan from Fashion Telegraph. Source: April Henry.

Please note that I'm in the deadline cave and restrain from sending any non-critical messages.

Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win a illustrator-autographed copy of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011)! The book will include a customized drawing--the winner can pick the buffalo's pose!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Buffalo" 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: Dec. 31. Sponsored by the illustrator; world-wide entries.

Cynsational Events

Jessica Lee Anderson will speak on seven things she's learned through her publishing journey...using songs at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at 11 a.m. Jan. 15 at BookPeople in Austin. Read an interview with Jessica and P.J. Hoover.

Save the Date! Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) book party and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin. Read a guest post by Mari on Kids Don't Read Like They Used To...And That's a Good Thing (on connecting books to technology). Don't miss the Night School blog tour!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Michelle Knudsen

Michelle Knudsen is the author of 40 books for children. Her best-known title is Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006), which was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy novel called The Dragon of Trelian (Candlewick, 2009, paperback Jan. 2011)(sample chapter).

Formerly a full-time children’s book editor, Michelle continues to edit manuscripts on a freelance basis and has also worked as a bookseller, substitute teacher, library supervisor, and managing editor, among other things.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her diabetic cat, Cleo.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children's-YA literature?

I think part of it was because my introduction to children's literature was all about working in different forms. I started out in the editorial department of Random House Children's Books, and my division worked on "format" books--board books, beginning readers, structures with strict page limits and guidelines. I edited many types of these books and began to try my hand at writing different types, too.

For several years, I continued to write in those forms I had come to know best, mostly board books and beginning readers.

When I began trying to write picture books, it took me a long time to write one that actually worked. And it took me a very long time to feel ready to try writing a novel. I'd actually always wanted to write novels, even before I knew I wanted to write for children. But it was so different from all the writing I'd done so far, and I went into it very cautiously, taking a lot of time to figure things out as I went along.

I don't know if it was so much about being inspired to write across forms as to work up the courage to try things outside my comfort zone.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I would like to say that working in shorter formats with strict word and page limits taught me to write succinctly, but I'm afraid that didn't happen. On the contrary, once I started writing things without strict limits, I found myself writing really long manuscripts and having to work at cutting them down later on.

I do think the shorter formats taught me to think really carefully about word choice, because when you're only allowed a few lines on a page, you really need to make every word count. They also taught me to think visually, because if you know you need to have an illustration on every page, you need to make sure there is something different for the artist to work with from page to page or spread to spread.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I'm not sure what to say about this. I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006) was published and began receiving some attention. Then people were asking me when my next picture book would be coming out, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to write another picture book.

I think that pressure definitely worked against me. It took me a long time to write another picture book manuscript that I felt good about. My second picture book, which will be called Argus, illustrated by Andréa Wesson (Candlewick) is scheduled for spring 2011--four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion.

I think in a perfect world, authors wouldn't need to worry about expectations and could write whatever kinds of books they wanted, but I also understand about developing an audience and feeling a responsibility to write books that fans of your previous books will enjoy.

An author certainly can't write only to expectations, though. At least, I don't think they should. Writing things you don't really want to write is not going to end up pleasing anyone.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of Argus, "Knudsen (Library Lion) never overplays her hand, but lets the story's laughs unfold naturally from the characters and circumstances. Her grasp of the life of the elementary school classroom is spot-on; this should become another favorite."

A Conversation with Michelle Knudsen, author of The Dragon of Trelian, from Candlewick Press (PDF). Peek: "World-building can be a complicated business. I’m the kind of writer who likes to jump into a story early and figure things out as I go along, but when you’re making up a whole world, you’ve got to be careful to keep track of everything!"

Of The Dragon of Trelian, Booklist cheers, "Calen and Meg's easygoing, entirely believable friendship is the core of this adventurous first novel. Meg is gutsy and impulsive while Calen is thoughtful and steadfast, and they make an appealing duo."

Michelle's latest release is "The Bridge to Highlandsville," which appears in I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos by Johanna Hurwitz, illustrated by Tim Nihoff (Candlewick, 2010). From the promotional copy: "How many different ways can ten leading middle-grade authors tell a story including the line "I fooled you"? Prepare to be surprised!"

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eternal Trailer by YA Reader Midnight Machiko

Color me blown away by YA reader Midnight Machiko's book project video on my YA Gothic fantasy Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)!

Check out the art, music, emotion! I don't think I could love it more. I don't even think that's possible. How about you?



Feel free to comment at Cynsations LJ.

New Voice: Lisa Railsback on Noonie's Masterpiece and Betti on the High Wire

Lisa Railsback is the first-time author of Noonie’s Masterpiece, illustrated by Sarajo Frieden (Chronicle, 2010) and Betti on the High Wire (Dial, 2010). From the promotional copy of Noonie's Masterpiece:

Fantastic illustrations with a fresh, contemporary look enrich this debut novel about a 10-year-old aspiring artist stuck living with an aunt, uncle, and cousin who clearly don't recognize her genius.

A humorous and heartfelt reminder that "a brilliant artist is never afraid," this book reveals that sometimes our greatest masterpieces are the bonds we unexpectedly forge with the people in our lives.


What is it like to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? The biggest surprise? Why?

I wish there’d been a How to be a Debut Author for Dummies book written just for me.

I’ve always felt that as a writer I only have a few singular tasks: to sit at my desk and stare out the window and drink coffee and pat my dog’s head under my desk. And…to write, of course, which is exactly why I love this job.

When the last galleys arrived in the mail for my first book, Noonie’s Masterpiece, illustrated by Sarajo Frieden (Chronicle, 2010). I was very excited to see the final color version.

But then…(dramatic music)…I found a note inside, from my sweet editor: “Congratulations! And now the work begins.”

Uh, what?

My stomach dropped, just a little. “But I’m done,” I mumbled to myself more than once. Done done done. After years of laboring on this first book. Years.

I suddenly felt as I did at confirmation class in the seventh grade when the youth minister pulled me aside and said, “Lisa, something is not sinking in here.”

My English professor at college did the same thing when I was failing my Beowulf class. “Lisa, there are only so many ways that I can explain.”

Now, I refuse to believe that I’m a dummy. The truth is, I simply have a little problem with escapism. There are certain concepts that don’t grasp my attention until I’m konked on the head with a spoon. In the case of being a debut author and having two books come out in 2010, the concepts had to konk me twice.

First Lesson: How to grasp that publishers don’t usually have tons of money: I had no clue. They’re the experts who are supposed to sell the book, right? And get me on "The Oprah Show" and whatnot? A writer trying to sell her book is obviously counter-intuitive. Yet, this was to be my next job, commencing pronto. This was definitely not in my job description. Or maybe it was, but I forgot. Now visualize me chewing on my nails at my desk…

How to Be a Primo Saleswoman

I was recruited to go to the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. It was to be my first book signing. But before I signed any books, people actually had to buy one.

The most difficult question I’ve ever heard is: “So what is your book about?”

Which is unfortunate because I hear this question all the time. What came rambling out of my mouth at TLA were minute-long tangents about all sorts of scattered Noonie trivia. By the end, I was practically begging people not to buy my book, because it obviously made no sense.

The very patient marketing folks from Chronicle rehearsed with me as if I were Eliza Doolittle. They asked me to go to my hotel room that night and practice. That is, to practice a few sentences over and over versus giving a crazy book report. I was proud of myself because I actually did sell a few more books the second day and I did get to sign them.

How to Create Internet Bling

A website? Seriously? Who knew I was supposed to have my own Lisa Railsback website? I wasn’t sure why I needed one, but everyone else seemed to have one.

When I found out how expensive it is to construct a website, I recruited my dear friend, Johnny. He’d never constructed a website either, but I coerced him to try. For free. Or rather, for lots of free dinners.

What emerged is a very simple website. Basic facts about me. And my books. And I’ve even had at least a handful of people, including kids, contact me through this site.

I’m very proud of us, Johnny and I, and proud of my website, even though nothing is animated or talks or pops out. Yet.

How to Create Even More Bling

So much bling flying around for authors. Who knew? Bookmarks? How does one go about creating a bookmark? A video trailer? Really? I paid for enough free dinners for the simple website.

I’m lucky that one of my publishing companies actually did these things for me. That’s the only reason I even know about this extra bling. But then I wondered why my second publisher didn’t provide the bling too?

Power Point presentations for school visits? I barely know the ins and outs of Microsoft Word. What happened to good old-fashioned authors, reading dramatically from their books?

Maybe I’ll tackle the extra bling for my fourth or fifth book. In the meantime, one thing I have been able to do is to connect with bloggers across the country. I love bloggers. They love kids’ books, and they’ve taken the time to read my books, and they’ve written their opinions. I feel proud for tapping into this wonderful world of bloggers.

How to Handle Harsh Critics

Maybe I imagined a panel of one hundred ten-year-olds sitting on the floor. They’d clap and raise their hands and have intellectual discussions about my books. My books would obviously leave profound impressions on them for the rest of their lives.

Who knew that most of the reviewers would be adults? I didn’t know.

Granted, most of my reviewers have been exceptionally kind. To the couple who weren’t, I found myself mumbling like a ten year old. Exactly like the artist in my book, Noonie Norton. “Of course that lady is clueless. She obviously doesn’t understand anything at all. Kids are obviously a hundred times smarter and should be the real critics….”

How to Just Be a Writer Again

There are things I love about being a debut author that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s wonderful, after years of labor and more than a few rejections, to have my books out in the real world. It’s marvelous having random people appreciate my books, and knowing that a ten-year-old in Moline, Illinois (my hometown) might be reading it in her bed. It’s great to still have the support from my agent, my editors, and all the collaborators from both publishing companies who have always believed in these books.

I still believe in my books, too.

But I’m also excited to not be a debut author anymore. A little notch in my cap, a little weathered and worn.

I’m excited for my next book to come out, even though I’ve just been konked over the head with the nail-chewing concept that sales for a third book are very, very important.

I’ve tucked away all the lessons; I’ll do what I can to push my books into my larger world. And then, thankfully, I can go back to my desk and my window and my coffee and patting my dog’s head and…writing.

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?

As of now, I’ve written four books (two published)---all first person for middle-graders with girl protagonists. I know it sounds crazy when a writer admits this, but I usually start off by knowing or hearing my character’s voice.

Sometimes I simply hear the first line of the book.

Betti, from Betti on the High Wire, says: “Some kids have nightmares. But me? I dream about the circus.”

Noonie, from Noonie’s Masterpiece, says, “This is me. My name is Noonie Norton and I’m a brilliant artist. The only small problem is that I haven’t been discovered yet.”

After rounds and rounds of revisions with both books, these lines---my very first impulse of a voice---have remained. And the stories hinge on it.

I don’t do character exercises, per se, but I do make a lot scribbles and take notes when I’m stuck on a character: How she feels about others; how she’d react in certain situations; and particularly what she’d say. To me, the dialogue says a lot about a character.

My protagonists also engage in running stream-of-conscious monologues. In each case, I know what my protagonist’s voice sounds like: Her inflections and her tempo and the pauses and when her voice might crack.

Betti and Noonie are very sassy, and say exactly what they feel. Sometimes they stomp their feet and say way too much.

This is why writing is fun to me. I grew up in a family of four girls, as the baby, where it was very hard to be heard. Instead, I quietly blended in and created characters in the basement.

The protagonists in my next two books are more introverted, perhaps like me. They are observers to a world of craziness around them, and must go through a process of learning how to speak up and how to take action. These characters are interesting to me and good for me as well.

I’ve tried very hard to write a book---just one---in third person, and I can never seem to do it. It makes me feel very distant from my character. I don’t know how to express her feelings and her view of the world at such a distance. It’s like I’m watching her instead of getting to see the world from her eyes, from inside her head.

This all may sound a little psycho, but I attribute it to working in the theater as a playwright. With plays, it’s all about the dialogue. I can know my character’s voice well, but I may have no clue what her face looks like. I can only describe her appearance in vague terms.

Some of my plays have been produced numerous times, in which case a variety of actors have taken on the role of my protagonist. My vision of a character’s appearance must be very flexible. I don’t have a visual for what Noonie’s face looks like up close or even Betti’s face, which is simply described as not-necessarily-white. For Noonie, I am lucky to have had an illustrator who gave my protagonist a very clear and colorful face.

I don’t have kids. In fact, I don’t even hang around with any kids. I don’t think I have a clue as to how kids talk these days, for better or worse.

When I was in grad school at the University of Texas, they didn’t offer a single class in writing for kids. My reading syllabus only covered fiction written for adults, and all my friends and colleagues wrote for adults. So, when I write my books I might be tapping into a combo of how I felt as a kid and how I feel now.

That’s how I would advise other writers to approach their first person protagonist---write what you believe is authentic, how you would speak and feel. Write books that you would enjoy reading as an adult as well as when you were a kid. Never talk down---or write down---or dumb it down. Kids are very smart and articulate and thoughtful, just like you, brilliant writer.

More on Lisa

Lisa Railsback was a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and a Michener Fellow in Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. Her plays have been performed across the United States. Noonie's Masterpiece was originally a play. She lives in Austin, Texas.

More on Lisa's Books

From the promotional copy of Betti on the High Wire:

Ten-year-old Babo and the other "leftover kids" live on an abandoned circus camp in a war-torn country. Babo believes her circus-star parents will come back for her any day now, so she is not one bit happy when an American couple adopts her. She hates her new name (Betti) and is confused by everything in America. She's determined to run away.

But as Betti slowly begins to trust her new family and even makes a friend, she decides maybe she can stay just one more day. And then maybe another....


Betti on the High Wire is both heartbreaking and hilarious--and completely unforgettable. This brave little storyteller of a girl will wiggle her way straight into your heart.


Check out the book trailer for Noonie's Masterpiece:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guest Post: Illustrator Ned Gannon on Time To Pray

By Ned Gannon

When I was approached to do a second book, one of the things that entered my mind was that I didn’t want to accept the job unless I could improve on the first book I did with Maha Addasi and Boyds Mills Press, White Nights of Ramadan (2008).

I decided to strive for an even stronger and more consistent atmosphere, which led to the construction of the design elements and the page backgrounds intended to lend warmth and vibrancy.

A lot of research went into the patterns and designs. I tried for a sense of history and a contemporary liveliness combined together.

I have to admit, I found the philosophy behind some of the Islamic geometry so interesting I had to keep myself from being distracted.

One trick for all illustrators is to balance what they imagine when they read a story (their artistic tendencies and preferences) with what they perceive as a faithfulness to the author’s text. This creates a little anxiety for any illustrator, but I think particularly when an ethnic culture is involved. On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem to take it lightly by creating caricatures; on the other hand, I didn’t want to make it stale and boring.

Maha diligently aided my process by making suggestions when I didn’t quite grasp the cultural setting or situation. For example, Maha clued me in as to when the grandmother might have her head covered and when she might have her hair down—or where Yasmin and her grandmother might pray within the mosque—or how the grandmother would position herself during prayer.

Visual research proved critical. I have not been to the Persian Gulf. So I perused books, magazines, blogs, and photos to construct the setting, architecture, and environments in the book. The most anxious moments for me, as an illustrator, are between the sketch submissions and the paintings.

And of course, there are always some revisions (sometimes even after the paintings are submitted), but all of that is part of a collaborative effort between author, editor, art director, and illustrator.

In the end, I am very happy to have made the connections I have made while sharing in the production of this book.

Thanks to Cynthia for maintaining this forum for writers and illustrators and fans of literature.

Thanks also to Maha for all her gracious help on the book’s details and her promotion of the book now it is released. And finally, thanks to Boyds Mills Press (Larry and Tim) for taking on the subject, and thanks to readers and buyers for supporting the book.

Cynsational Notes

See also a Cynsations interview with Maha about Time To Pray.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Guest Post: Author Maha Addasi on Time to Pray

By Maha Addasi

I thought I’d talk today about the challenges of writing a multicultural story in picture book form, and tomorrow Ned Gannon will talk about his own experiences illustrating Time to Pray (Boyds Mills, 2010).

When I wrote Time to Pray, I wanted to capture the essence of a culture in the 32-page format. The challenge wasn’t the word count as much as it was deciding which cultural aspects to include and which to leave out.

Muslims in the Arab and Islamic world hear the call to prayer from their local mosques five times each day. Children in non-Muslim countries don’t hear that.

The idea for the book came from my childhood. I grew up in Kuwait in the area known as the neutral zone, which is between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The mosque in that area was too far from my house. On occasion when the wind blew in a certain direction I could hear a faint call to prayer.

When I visited my grandmother who lived closer to downtown Kuwait, it was fascinating to hear the call to prayer. The mosque was across the street from my grandmother’s house, and the muezzin’s voice rang loud and clear. Each time the athan started, my grandmother would stand up in honor of the mention of God.

I get the same feeling of awe when I pass by a church on a Sunday and the bells are tolling. It’s just a unique feeling that I wanted to capture in a book for young readers.

That’s when the tricky part started. There were too many components to the story: the call to prayer, the names of the prayers, when they occurred during the day, the ritual washing.

Taking the young age group that the book is meant for into consideration, I decided that the names of the prayers were too complicated to pronounce and were totally unnecessary to the story, so I included them in an author’s note.

I also wanted to include a few foreign words that I wanted the young readers to leave with. The words “muezzin” (which is the name of the person who performs the call to prayer) and “athan” (which is the word for the call to prayer itself) fit the bill. These words had to be woven within the fabric of the text in a way that did not take the reader out of the story.

With the story idea crystallized, I still needed a suitable starting point. I decided on the universal theme of the love between a grandmother and her granddaughter, Yasmin.

Time to Pray is the story of so many young children in America whose grandparents live in other countries. I wanted that multi-generational love to span oceans and continents and also to tell a story of this unique moment when Yasmin realizes she needs to practice for what would become a lifelong commitment to praying five times daily.

This is the story of every Muslim child, regardless of origin, and this is why there is no mention of Yasmin’s country of origin.

Cultural accuracy, a universal theme, choosing the information to include or leave out, word count and telling a story with a light hand while steering clear of didactic themes as well as thinking of what would potentially work as illustratable moments all had to come into play for Time to Pray to come to fruition. Now that’s a mouthful.

I was so lucky that the illustrator for Time to Pray was Ned Gannon. Ned captured the essence of the world of the story and highlighted the nuances of the culture beautifully. He brought the characters to life and showed how a typical Muslim grandmother dresses differently while at home from while out in public. I’m hoping readers appreciate the gorgeous oil paintings that brought the book to life.

Cynsational Notes

See an interview with Maha about her first picture book, The White Nights of Ramadan, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2008) from Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup.

From Maha's site: "If anything is a common language between children of the world...it's candy! The White Nights of Ramadan is about a candy festival that goes on for three nights in a row in the middle of Ramadan. The festival called Girgian (Pronounced gur-gee-ANN) is celebrated in this book that shows a fun tradition, through children's eyes."

Peek: "...what I wanted to show was that Ramadan is not a month of suffering, but a month that holds beautiful meanings of sharing and interacting with family and friends." Note: includes childhood photos and interior illustrations.

See also a Cynsations interview with Ned on Time To Pray.
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