Saturday, January 08, 2011

New Voice: Lark Pien on Mr. Elephanter

Lark Pien is the debut author-illustrator of Mr. Elephanter (Candlewick, 2010)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Early every morning, Mr. Elephanter arrives at the Elephantery to care for his diminutive charges, who greet him with toots and trumpets.

There are hugs and hellos all around! They all eat pancakes, paddle and splash in the neighborhood pool, and parade through the bustling city.

After naps, Mr. Elephanter pretends he’s a tunnel, tower, and bridge, while the elephanties play all around him.

In fresh watercolors exuding warmth and whimsy, Lark Pien introduces the doting Mr. Elephanter--and the most adorable miniature creatures you’ll ever meet.

Come visit the Elephantery, where Mr. Elephanter looks after the peppy elephanties! A charming, quirky picture book debut by an acclaimed cartoonist.

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

My mom had her favorites and I distinctly remember her reading to me Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, "The Tyger" by William Blake (1794), and The Happy Prince by Hans Christian Andersen. I continued to read these stories long after it was considered acceptable by my peers. I think I was attracted to the strangeness of the language and also the sadness that sometimes appeared in the stories.

As an young reader, I recognized authors: Leo Leonni, Tomie de Paola, Arnold Lobel, William Steig, Bill Peet, Mercer Mayer, and I would seek out titles by them.

I loved the shapes and colors in Leonni’s and de Paola’s books. Lobel’s stories were completely engrossing to me, and I always sensed there was a lot of drama even though there were very few words in the text. Mayer’s characters were messy but had an addicting charm.

I enjoyed reading and would borrow the maximum number of books allowed each time we visited the library.

I also vividly remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Beverly Rodericks - a warm lady with an ample bosom and curly blonde hair, rouged checks and a soft voice - as she read aloud to the class Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer, illustrated by Marvin Bileck (Holiday House 1964). I loved listening to the words. They didn’t make much sense, but at the age of five, this was my absolute favorite book.

(Many years later, after having long forgotten the title, I was reunited with this book by typing into a search engine the line I could recall: “oh, you’re just talking silly talk”.)

It is difficult for me to say exactly how these early years influence my work now, but it is apparent that I am fond of my early years and that I find value in the memories of being young and of being read to.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children's books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for other interested in succeeding on this front?

I had little formal training in the arts, but received special attention for my writing in high school. My English teachers encouraged me to take independent study courses and to exercise my creative mind. I wrote scripts, interior monologues, free form paragraphs with no periods. We would meet one-on-one, once a week to discuss the writings. I had a lot of freedom then.

My writing petered out in college, but my pictorial and symbolic vocabulary grew. I was studying architecture at the time, and a lot of visualization was required.

I had a vivisecting obsession, which compelled me to draw associative maps – of buildings, daily schedules, to-do lists, music mixes, dreams. Later on, this associative mapping would become an important tool for cartooning (making comics).

The idea of drawing comics was suggested to me later when I was already well into my architectural career, but I took it up because it was a nice place for my drawing and writing to meet.

I am predominantly a visual thinker, and therefore set out in making stories by drawing what initially comes to mind. The text follows closely (usually I will draw and write at the same time) and is based on what I hear, feel, or see in the images.

From these first glimpses into a story, I will construct thumbnails, and eventually hone it into a comic. Editing comes later, at which point I become extremely critical of my word choice and make a lot of changes. Finding the right words can give me a sense of closure.

Adapting the comic "Brave Mr. Elephanter" into a traditional children’s book was challenging since the process was nearly opposite of that described above. I was asked to lead with the text, define the story through the text, and then to make one drawing per page, illustrations that would support the text. The writer in me got a real workout, while my artist side felt constricted.

It was uncomfortable, but I had to trust words and pictures would reconvene in a way that was natural and real. In the end, I was willing to be flexible with my creative habits, as long as the intent of Mr. Elephanter remained true.

Knowing my own process and getting to know the processes of others has been helpful. Understanding potentials, limitations and capacities also brought the Mr. Elephanter children’s book to fruition. These aspects do not create stories, but they do help in building a sense of place, and good stories can come out of that.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Guest Post: Janice Hardy on The Trouble With Triples

By Janice Hardy

When I first started writing my middle grade fantasy, The Shifter: The Healing Wars (Balzer & Bray, 2009), I had no idea it was going to be a trilogy.

I’d never written a trilogy before, but halfway through the story I saw the bigger story arc that my protagonist, Nya, could be part of if I nudged her in that direction.

I made some notes, finished the book, and sent it off to agents with a little, “this story stands alone but could continue as a trilogy” statement at the bottom of the query.

Eight months later, I sold a trilogy. What the heck was I gonna do now?

I plowed into the second book, Blue Fire (Balzer & Bray, 2010) and made every mistake a sophomore writer can make.

I learned a lot about writing sequels from that and was better prepared for book three. After going through the process once, I have several things I’ll do differently the next time I try another trilogy.

1. Figure out the entire plot in advance.

Sure, I knew the story of all three books, but knowing book three is “about the war” doesn’t do squat when you’re trying to figure out the plot for books leading up to that war. Each book needed its own plot arc, and that plot arc needed to fit into the series arc.

They also couldn’t just be rehashes of the same basic plot from the first book. They needed to offer new story and raise the stakes.

I won’t need to know every little subplot, but understanding the big set pieces in advance will save me a ton of tears later.

Things like: How does each book start? What’s the core conflict and major goal? What are the stakes? How does each book end? How does each book build off the previous book?

2. Figure out my characters in advance.

This might be a toughy, but characters tend to slip in as stories go on. Adding five or six each book didn’t seem like that big a deal until I got to book three, then suddenly everyone was in the same book. I had dozens and dozens of characters, each with their own small subplots, and it was way too much to deal with. Trying to wrap up all those characters and subplots was maddening.

Pre-planning some characters that I can recycle each book will help eliminate that “character creep.” It’ll also make me think twice every time I start to add another character to the story.

3. Figure out my big secrets in advance.

I had characters reveal awesome secrets to me in Blue Fire that I’d had no clue about in The Shifter. So I had to figure out how to make those delicious new secrets work with what I’d already written and couldn’t change. But if I can plan my big reveals and decide where in each book they are revealed, stuff won’t sneak up on me as much and hijack my plot. Uncovering secrets is also a great way to keep readers interested, so pre-planning those will help move the plot along as well.

Naturally, I won’t know everything before I start writing, and things are always revealed as the story develops. But a little more “forward thinking” on my part will save me a lot of frustration later. And probably lead to a much better trilogy in the end.

Cynsational Notes

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include The Shifter and Blue Fire from Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins.

She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Don't miss her blog, The Other Side of the Story: One writer's take on writing, querying, and publishing.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an autographed copy of Night School by Mari Mancusi (Book Five in the Blood Coven vampire series)(Berkley)! From the promotional copy:

Vampires, Slayers and...fairies?

Sunny and Rayne McDonald are about to get

After their parents’ shocking revelation about their fae heritage and an attack on their lives, the McDonald twins find themselves on the run—forced to hide out at Riverdale Academy, a boarding school for vampire slayers, deep in the Swiss Alps. With no cells, no internet, and no way to contact their vampire boyfriends—the twins are on their own.

Being a vampire stuck in a school full of slayers isn’t easy. Especially with no blood substitute stocked on campus.

Soon Rayne finds herself succumbing to her bloodlust and losing control—especially around the arrogant, but devastatingly handsome Corbin Billingsworth the Third—who isn’t sure whether he wants to kiss her...or kill her.

But when Sunny starts acting strange, Rayne realizes Riverdale Academy may be hiding some deadly secrets of its own—leading to a showdown in Fairyland that may cost the twins their lives.

To enter, comment or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Night School" in the subject line. Deadline: Jan. 21. Sponsored by the author; U.S. entries only.

Note: Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) presentation and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin. See details under "Cynsational Events" below!

More News & Giveaways

2010 Cybils Finalists from the Cybils 2010: Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards. Note: fresh, fierce picks in every category. Take a look! Read a Cynsations interview with middle-grade fiction finalist Lisa Railsback.

The Creative Life Workshops from Children's Literature Network. Two long-time SCBWI members/children’s authors (Lisa Bullard and Laura Purdie Salas) are offering a series of online classes that will give you the inside scoop on how to submit your manuscript to a publisher. "Matchmaking Your Manuscript” offers guidance on how to create a “hit list” of the editors/agents that are the ideal targets for your manuscript. “Love at First Sight” offers personalized feedback to help you create a powerful and professional cover letter. The classes will cover manuscripts for children and young adults in all genres. Sessions begin Jan. 13. See more information.

See also Finding a Publisher Is a Lot Like Dating by Lisa and Laura from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words.

Lisa Yee is the author of the two American Girl "2011 Girl of the Year" books, Aloha, Kanani and Good Job, Kanani! See the whole scoop!

16 Must-Have Elements for a Successful Novel by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "Only two thousand words – a suggestion only to change the subject as often as every two thousand words to keep the interest of readers who are growing up as members of the Twitter-Facebook-texting-random-browsing generation."

Writing Jewish-Themed Children's Books: a workshop May 15 to May 18 from Highlights Foundation. Peek: "Unlike a one-day conference, this workshop includes one-on-one manuscript critiques with an expert in Jewish children's literature or an editor; an editor panel; a discussion of Jewish children’s books with prominent Jewish librarian Linda Silver, author of Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens; and real-time writing with immediate critique." Note: speakers include Margery Cuyler, Publisher, Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books/Shofar Books and Ruth Katcher, Editor-at-Large, Egmont USA.

Are You Ready for an Agent? by Tabitha from Writer Musings. Note: insights from agents Jennifer Matteson and Edward Necarsulmer IV. Peek: "Unless you’ve got several sales under your belt that are doing well, don’t pitch an idea or concept with sample chapters in a query. Agents and editors need to see the completed manuscript for fiction."

SCBWI Team Blog Interview with Simon & Schuster Associate Art Director Lucy Ruth Cummins by Jaime Temairik from Cocoastomp. Peek: "I love such a range of things, but I'm mainly looking for things I'm touched by. I love cute. I love simple. But I also love creepy and detailed!" See also an interview with Denise Cronin, Vice President in the Penguin Young Readers Group and Art Director.

How to Avoid Getting an Agent by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Ramblings of On Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "Sometimes we Google your name if we like your writing and are considering discussing representation with you. If we find things that scare us away, you'll never know we were even investigating you. You'll get a form rejection."

Immigration: Coming to America by Kristin Anderson from School Library Journal. Peek: "Through reading about an immigrant’s experience, non-immigrant children and teens learn to empathize with those they might see as 'different,' and those who come from an immigrant background learn that they are not alone." Note: annotated bibliography of recommended books for elementary and secondary readers.

Voices You Should Hear: Bethany Hegedus on Character by Janet S. Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "'Ensemble pieces,' is a phrase that is most heard when discussing acting. It could be bandied about when seeing a film, a play or even a sitcom such as 'Modern Family' or a dramedy such as 'Parenthood.' Interesting to note, these are both current popular TV ensembles that are based around families—-but there are others."

Home and Work are Here by Janice Shefelman from Inside Shefelman Books. A peek into the lives, process, and home of a married children's book creating team. Peek: "We live in a playful tree house designed by my architect, Tom. It is made of cedar and glass and perches on the edge of a bluff overlooking Shoal Creek greenbelt, thus the name Shoal Creek Studios."

The Highlights Foundation offers scholarships to fund writers at their Chautauqua workshops. Scholarship applications must be postmarked no later than Feb. 11. For information, contact Jo Lloyd, 877.512.8365 or e-mail See scholarship newsletter.

Readers Choice 2010 Winners from Young Adult Books Central. Note: special congratulations to Austin pal, Chris Barton, whose Shark vs. Train (Little, Brown, 2010) is the winner of favorite children's/picture book.

Congratulations to Rita Williams-Garcia, winner of the 2011 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction for One Crazy Sumer (HarperCollins, 2010)! Source: Read Roger. Note: Rita is highly recommended as a speaker.

Cynsational Tip: It's a new year! Don't forget to update the copyright year on your blogs and websites to 2011.

How Much to Sell Yourself by Mary Kole from Peek: "Where’s the line between confident and bombastic?"

Rearranging the Teen Shelves, compiled by Megan Crew from The Enchanted Inkpot. Authors weigh in on Barnes & Noble's recent decision to display books by genre/category.

Manuscript Submissions Etiquette by The Buried Editor from Buried in the Slush Pile at CBAY Books. A list of tips for electronic submissions. Peek: "If you are doing multiple submissions, you need to send multiple emails."

Children's Book Hub

Bestselling children's book author, editor and educator Emma Walton Hamilton has announced the launch of the Children's Book Hub, a membership-based "virtual salon," providing information, resources and support for aspiring and established children's book authors.

For a monthly fee of $19.95, Hub members receive access to regular teleseminars featuring expert interviews with authors, editors, agents and other notable members of the children's book industry, as well as question-and-answer calls addressing specific member concerns and recordings after each event.

In addition, the site offers monthly newsletters, a Members' Forum community of support, information about industry trends and resources, and numerous resource materials such as lists of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, editing checklists, manuscript submission information, as well as writing tools and marketing information and ideas.

"In addition to writing, I have been teaching, providing editorial services and blogging on topics of interest to children's book authors for a number of years," says Emma. "It's enormously gratifying to help others fulfill their dreams of touching the minds and hearts of the next generation. The Hub is the next logical step in that process."

Read a Cynsations interview with Emma.

Cynsational Books of 2010 & Beyond

For those who missed it, I shared my list of Cynsational Books of 2010 on Dec. 31. It includes book trailers and links to more information on each.

While I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically recommend each one, I'd like to emphasize once more that it's not a complete list of 2010 recommendations. I'm one person. I'm still reading 2010 releases, though I've already started on the 2011 books, too.

For example, I'm quite taken with Cheryl Rainfield's Scars (WestSide, 2011), but I've been reading it slowly. I'm not quite to the end. It's the kind of book that demands a lot of the reader, and that's a great thing. But I'm very sensitive, and sometimes I have to put it down and come back later. I'm sure that once I'm through, it'll be one of my all-time favorites.

Likewise, Jennifer R. Hubbard strikes me as quite likely to win the Printz someday. But I set her book down with a few pages to go, and now I can't find it. (Possibly Greg pinched it!). Ditto Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and an eventual Newbery.

Another 2010 title to fall in love with? Janet S. Fox's Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010). Don't miss it.

Finally, I'd like to cheer an ongoing series, Babymouse by Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Matthew Holm (Random House), as the number one children's book checked out of the New York Public Library in 2010.

Cynsations is an ongoing conversation of books. So expect me to keep referencing those published last year (and before that).

Holiday Highlights

Did you take a holiday vacation? Here's what you missed at Cynsations:

New Voice: Shaun David Hutchinson on The Deathday Letter (comedic writing and plotting vs. plunging)("maybe there's someone out there whose every kiss has been fairy-tale magic wrapped up in candy-cane bows. Without a similar experience to draw from, that person might read my story and simply think me a sad, sorry individual. But that's the risk you take.");

Suzanne Slade on Climbing Lincoln's Steps: The African American Journey (how Martin, Marian and Barack inspired the author);

Dee Garretson on Wildfire Run (getting to know protagonist; writing around changing technologies)("In ten years, will a young reader realize lack of cell phone service is a logical problem characters might face in the time the story is set? I don't think so.")

Ilsa J. Bick on Draw the Dark (on researching German PW camps in Wisconsin and how she connected with Carolrhoda editor Andrew Karre)

Greg van Eekhout on Kid vs. Squid (on character building, inspirational fantasy books, and promotion)("His best weapon is his smart alec mouth, and my biggest challenge writing him was getting him to shut up.")

Cynsational Screening Room

Get to know the Class of 2k11: Debut YA and Middle Grade Authors:

And get to know The Elevensies:

Check out the book trailer for Desires of the Dead (A Body Finder Novel) by Kimberly Derting (Harper, Feb. 15, 2011). Source: Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books.

Author Kathi Appelt answers questions about Keeper (Atheneum, 2010):

More Personally

Great news! Cynsations at Blogger now welcomes comments, so you no longer have to surf over to Cynsations at LiveJournal to chime in. Also, I've changed the design template. I liked the whimsical nature of the previous one. But I'm hopeful that this format is easier to read. What do you think?

On a related note, Nathan Bransford discusses How to Write a Good Blog Comment. As always, he has smart things to say, but no pressure from me. I'd be happy with the occasional "howdy."

School Library Journal cheers my latest picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010)(illustrator interview): "This original tall tale with its highly energetic, brightly colored illustrations has expressive typeface showing the word 'LOUD' repeatedly in bold capital letters. Readers as well as listeners will have fun with this animated story, and the Southwestern twang will just come naturally." See sidebar for teacher's guides.

On the YA front, here's a terrific teen review of Blessed from School Library Journal: "A beautiful novel that ties together two other amazing books, Tantalize and Eternal, this story has wonderful characters and a timeless setting. I felt that I had glue on my hands—-I just couldn't put it down! This is a novel for just about any fantasy reader. I would, and will, recommend it to everyone. –-Marissa H., age 14

Turning to the kidlitosphere, Gwenda Bond at Shaken & Stirred says, "This series is set apart by its rich, quirky universe, the way Cyn plays with gender dynamics, and how truly funny and poignant it is. Not to mention it's in direct conversation with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I. Loved. It."

Thanks also to Reading in Color for featuring Blessed as its Waiting on Wednesday Pick!

Excited about the upcoming release of Blessed? Please feel free to grab a countdown widget for your blog or website with my thanks!

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith ARC giveaway by P.J. "Tricia" Hoover from Roots in Myth. Deadline: midnight Jan. 14. Thank you, Tricia!

Reminder: Blessed: Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Giveaway by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books. Peek: "I started making notes on Quincie in late 2001/early 2002, so it's been quite a journey. She may well have small roles in future books-the graphic novels start coming out in Aug. 2011-but Blessed does conclude her big arc in the prose novels." Giveaway deadline: midnight CST Jan. 9. Scroll for more information.

Author Insight: Sold or Sell-Out? from Wastepaper Prose and Other Literary Woes. Note: I join 14 other authors in discussing the editorial changes we will make, won't make and why.

Reminder: Cat Calls E-Book by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2010) is now available for free to Kindle users. See details.

Here just for the monsters? You may want to read Spookycyn instead!

Even More Personally

Last week was my birthday! Here are my flowers from Greg, who's blogging today at GregLSBlog about living in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, a paleontology museum in a Claremont, California High School, and free "Paleontology for Educators" workshops that they're providing this winter. In other news, he recommends Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011).

On a sadder note, one of my favorite local restaurants, Katz's Deli, closed. It opened in 1979, ironically, with the slogan, "Katz's Never Closes." My thanks to Mr. Katz and my waiter, Calvin, for many breakfasts, now-and-again lunches, and the occasional dinner.

Farewell, One Pastrami Center! You (and your kosher breakfast tacos) are already missed.

Here's a peek at my work in progress. It's the (still untitled) fourth prose novel in the Tantalize series, and while characters from previous casts are in play, draws more from events in Eternal.

That's Music Choice (Sounds of the Season) on the television. Special thanks to April Lurie for the Diet Coke. Most appreciated.

Congratulations to Shayne Leighton on the sale of her debut YA novel, Of Light and Darkness, to Decadent Publishing. Shayne created the Tantalize and Eternal book trailers. Don't miss her new film, "The Incubus."

Link of the Week: Female Movie Character Rating Scale by Janni Lee Simner. Consider your work in progress with this in mind.

Cynsational Giveaways

Don't miss the Blessed ARC giveaway by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books or the Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith ARC giveaway by P.J. "Tricia" Hoover from Roots in Myth.

The winner of an illustrator-autographed copy of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011) is Sheri in California! Note: Sheri requested that Daniel include a drawing of the buffalo reading to his kindergarten teacher.

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. Event will include author talks, Q&A, refreshments and signing. Wear red and black if you're on the side of Evil or blue and black if you're on the side of Good. Bonus points (and possible prize) to anyone who dresses up as a vampire, shape shifter, vampire slayer, angel or faerie! 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!

A Cacophony of Conference Contests from Austin SCBWI in conjunction with Books, Boots, and Buckskin, the chapter's regional conference on Feb. 18 and Feb. 19. Note: includes drawings for saved seats and both author/manuscript and illustrator/portfolio critiques.

Don't Miss

Coming this February to the Zach scott, performed by the Zach Scottt's "youth pre-professional troupe," a musical based on April Lurie's young adult novel, Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminial Minds (Delacorte 2007):

At first glance, April Lundquist seems like your average high school freshman in 1970s Brooklyn. She's sporting bell bottoms and dancing disco like all of her friends.

But when the Mafia shows up on her doorstep--literally--April finds herself confronted with some tough choices to make.

Will she be able to save her brother, navigate boyfriends, and capture the perfect kiss, all while keeping her cool? Find out in Zach's world premier production of this new musical for the whole family!

Show times and dates: 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Feb. 5, Feb. 12, and Feb. 19; 6 p.m. Feb. 6, Feb. 13, and Feb. 20. Click here to buy tickets.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Guest Post: Julie Berry on Writing What You Know

By Julie Berry

Write. What. You. Know.

I used to bang my head against that tired maxim. What does a frumpy suburban mom who’s lived a coddled , well-fed life know about anything worth molding into a sparkly fantasy adventure?

Peanuts. Diddly-squat.

It took reams of bad beginnings and ample reassurance from advisors at Vermont College of the Fine Arts to begin to learn what I did know. (One wise instructor, whom I won’t name to avoid obvious flattery, rhymes with Bynthia Beitich Bsmith.)

I knew a little about emotions. I remembered adolescent feelings. That carried me through my first novel, The Amaranth Enchantment (Bloomsbury, 2009).

Soon after, I thought about all the people who’d asked me why, in heaven’s name, I wrote books for girls when I had four sons at home. “Because,” I would answer, “I am a girl. I write for me. My books aren’t cupcakes I bake for my kids.”

Behind that bluster lurked a smidgen of fear. I knew how to be a girl, or at least, a Julie girl. As for boys, I only knew how to feed them and yell at them. I feared I’d fail if I tried to inhabit one.

I’ve since determined that whenever I discover a writerly fear in myself – i.e., a conscious awareness that I wouldn’t dare grapple with the artistic challenge of depicting, say, the inner life and longings of a fish, then that is exactly what I need to try next.

Fears are revelations in shabby clothes.

With my sister, illustrator Sally Faye Gardner, as a collaborator, I set out to learn what I knew about boys. What did they like to read about and think about?

A lot of the same things I enjoy. Comic books and superheroes and mayhem and monsters. We threw those ingredients into our mixing pot.

Who are the enemies in a squirmy boy’s world?

Authority figures. The people that make you sit still and eat kale and stop playing with matches. Psychotic mothers like me, in other words. Irate school principals and disgruntled teachers.

(If you’re a teacher, you’re among the chosen. I’m talking about those Other Teachers.)

Monsters. Teachers. Parents.

Step one – eliminate parents via A) bloody death or B) boarding school. We went for B, and that left monsters and teachers to reconcile.

Then the obvious answer stared us in the face. Middle school teachers are monsters who eat kids for breakfast. It’s true, isn’t it? Sally and I went to the same junior high school back in the day. We remember. Write what you know. Speak your truth.

We needed a setup, a reason for our hero to be plucked from normalcy and thrust into the monster school abyss.

At the time, I was engaged in many drawn-out discussions with my local school to help my son with behavior struggles. One option was to consider sending this son to a specialized, out-of-district school. I took a walk one night to de-stress over his situation – and over my deadline to write a new Chapter One.

Once again, a revelation. Life handed me the solution to my creative challenge.

Chapter One became a meeting with the school – my meetings with my school in disguise—where Cody Mack, his clueless parents, and his pompous principal meet to plan his academic fate. Who better to take on Cody’s education than Dr. Archibald Farley, noted neuroscientist, closet vampire, and Headmaster of Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys?

That illustrated chapter of the meeting with Cody, his parents, his principal, and the vampire sold four books.

The first two Splurch Academy: For Disruptive Boys books, The Rat Brain Fiasco and Curse of the Bizarro Beetle (both Grosset & Dunlap, 2010).

So write what you know. Speak your truth. What you’re living now is what you know now. It will seep into your story anyway, so own it. Mine it.

Once when I had a prolonged respiratory challenge, my protagonist often faced situations that left her feeling she couldn’t breathe. Everywhere, breath had thematic significance. Once when I was on a fitness kick, running appeared everywhere in my draft, on literal and symbolic levels. Far too often my protagonists are notably sleep-deprived.

I write boy characters – or girl characters, or fish characters – who feel real when I write what I know about being alive now, and not what I know about Pokemon and Mario Kart and what it’s like to stand before the pot to go. This is the cupcake I can give my boys.

Good thing, too, since there’s been precious little baking in my house since this writing gig began.

Cynsational Notes

Julie Berry grew up in western New York. She holds a B.S. from Rensselaer in communication and an MFA from Vermont College in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She now lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband and four young sons.

[Cyn Note: she is in no way "frumpy."]

Visit the official Splurch Academy: For Disruptive Boys website, which includes more on the books, updates, events, the scoop on the creative team, links, really nifty activities (Create a Comic!), and contact information.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Widget: Counting Down to Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2010)

Please join me in counting down to Blessed, which crosses over the casts of Tantalize and Eternal. See also the Blessed media kit (PDF). Just click "Get Widget" for the code to embed.

Thanks for your enthusiasm!

New Voice: Sarah Lynn on Tip-Tap Pop

Sarah Lynn is the first-time author of Tip-Tap Pop, illustrated by Valeria Docampo (Marshall Cavendish, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Emma and her grandpa, Pop, are tap-dancing pals. They dig-shuffle-chug through town and put on a clickity-clacking, tip-tapping show every year on Emma’s birthday. But Pop is getting old. He starts forgetting things, even Emma’s birthday. And he stops dancing.

Can Emma help Pop’s feet remember how to dance? Clickity-clack, clickity-clack, stomp-stomp-clickity-clack. . . .

Endearing illustrations rendered in gouache and pencils show that even the smallest act may spark a memory in an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

What is it like, to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What has come as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

For me, being a debut author was a strange combination of exhilaration and feeling like a complete faker. Like I’m not really an author! Please, me? No way.

Because--- shhh--- I’m not really 100% sure what makes a “sellable” book yet.

That might seem to be a strange reaction since I’ve been working toward this goal for pretty much my whole life! I played around with writing as a child and teen, and then more seriously after I became a mother myself.

It’s funny because when I’ve gotten rejections I always felt like somehow the editor didn’t get it. If she truly had vision, she would’ve wanted it, right?

But then when things flip and an editor does want a manuscript, I get this feeling of disbelief. Like how could they possibly want it? No one else did.

Okay, so I’m exposing myself as a pessimist (at least as it relates to my own endeavors.)

What I love about being a debut author is that it’s given me some faith in the process. That if I keep on plugging away, eventually something will work out.

Plus, it is amazingly cool to see someone else’s illustrations bring your story to life! I remember at first I was surprised because of course it wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned it.

But then I totally fell in love with the illustrations. I think it was brilliance on the editor’s part to pick an illustrator with such a fun whimsical art for my story, especially because it allowed me to present a serious topic in a light and fun way.

I’d say the challenges are with marketing. For a naturally shy person such as myself, it is difficult to do a lot of marketing or self promotion… but I’m stretching my wings.

In terms of my biggest surprise, I’d say it was when the editor sent me rough drafts of the illustrations and asked for my input. What a nice surprise!

The original dance class scene had only little girls shown. Being a mom of all boys, I definitely wanted a little boy represented. I mentioned it, and the next time I saw the illustrations, there was a boy in the dance class.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

It is a tough market! I think the key is mindset.

You have to know that it’s not just about writing a good picture book.

It’s about writing a good picture book that fills an unfilled niche and is marketable.

When my kids and I walk into a bookstore, they make a beeline for the commercial picture books. (I won’t name names, but the books that are created after popular televisions shows, superheroes or abnormally large reptiles.)

Those books take up so much shelf space at many mainstream bookstores, and they grab the attention of the young readers. This makes it even harder to write a marketable picture book.

My advice would be as follows:

1) To not get too discouraged about rejections. (Yeah right, I know.) Let me rephrase. Try not to get too discouraged. Don’t take it personally. Just take it as one person’s perspective and move on.

2) I’d also advise being open to editing suggestions. You can always save old versions, so you don’t lose anything by trying it a new way.

3) For picture books, especially, less is more. It is difficult to write tight prose, but as a parent, it is much more fun to read a book like that than one that is overly wordy.

4) I’d also say to be willing to revise until your eyes cross. I had no idea how much revision is involved in writing a good text. I thought Tip-Tap Pop was finished about twenty versions before it was actually finished.

5) Consider other people’s feedback, but don’t lose sight of your own vision.

6) And finally, write for yourself, not just to get published. Try to enjoy the process of it all, not just the end result.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Guest Post: G. Neri on Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel

By G. Neri

Sometimes, the battle to conquer a book is so long and arduous, you feel like throwing in the towel and saying, never again. So how (and more importantly why) do we even bother to do it over and over?

The why is easy. You do it because you can’t not do it. A director once wisely said of acting: if you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead. But if someone tells you you’ll never be in the movies and you still pursue acting because you can’t live without it, then you’re an actor. God help you.

I say the same thing about writing. I write because that’s how I express myself. Even if they told me I’d never publish again, I’d still do it. So the real question then is, how do I find the magic to write a new book?

I believe writing is a lot like having a baby: the human brain deliberately blacks out all the pain--the endless sleepless nights, the diaper changing, the spit up, and the emergency visits to the ER. Otherwise, you’d never have another kid! My mom says she can’t remember the six years she spent when she had and diapered her three boys in successive years.

And I can’t really remember the pain certain books have caused me.

I am an accidental novelist. It was never a dream of mine, nor did I think I ever would (or even could) write a novel. It was only because my writer’s group literally tricked me into writing my first novel Surf Mules (Putnam, 2009) that I even tried.

It had started off as a short story. But my group liked it so much, they kept asking for more. So I kept writing and they kept pushing, until it was too late to turn back. Like it or not, my short story was now becoming a long story. It was on its way to being a novel.

But it was only because I’d had seen fellow writers make it through their novels, chapter by chapter, that I thought, maybe…

Later, when I was on vacation with my family on an island in the Baltic Sea, I was cornered into cutting 70 pages at the eleventh hour to finish the book. It was my "Barton Fink" moment, and I literally lost it. The story, the main character, the whole reason I was even a writer.

This in the midst of the long-delayed battle to complete Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, illustrated by Randy duBurke (Lee and Low, 2010), which took almost 15 years to see the light of day. Things were looking bad, but somehow, I was talked down from the ledge and the book was miraculously finished in time and I lived to see another day.

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

Barely. The incredible praise Yummy has received helps to damper the pain we endured to see that book through. But had I not already written a draft of my next potential novel during the happy breaks between versions of Surf Mules, I might not have done it again in the aftermath of those battles.

But those experiences lead to my forthcoming book Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick, 2011), which, surprise, was also an accidental novel. Originally written in free-verse, my editor casually pondered perhaps this could be straight up prose instead? She was right, but this time, after all that heartache (and a few more not worth mentioning), transcribing it into a novel became a pleasure. Green lights all the way, everything going my way and suddenly, I began to think, Hmm, this isn’t so bad.

Cyn asked me to talk about some of the things I am taking into consideration as I begin this epic journey once again. And it is a big step.

So now I find myself for the first time actually trying to write a novel…on purpose! (What a novel idea.)

I mean, just the notion of writing the Great American Novel prevents many would-be authors from tackling this daunting format.

How does one compete with Faulkner or Hemingway, Franzen or Roth? Anderson (L.H.) or…Anderson (M.T.)?

Especially since my agent thinks this one is the one.

It’s a lot to take in.

So I find myself resorting to all the advice I constantly give kids when they ask for advice on writing. But here, I am giving it back to myself:

1. Give yourself permission to write badly. That’s right. Even the greatest writers I know admit their first drafts suck. So forget even trying. The first draft is all about getting it out of your head and onto paper (or disk). It’s the number one obstacle that keeps would-be writers from ever finishing a novel. They get stuck trying to make every page, every sentence and every word perfect just right. Forget it.

Just find a word, throw together a sentence that communicates the basic idea and move on. Know that it will suck. Embrace its suckage.

As a former animator, I learned, never stop to make fixes. Keeping moving forward until you reach the end, then go back and fix. Otherwise, you’ll never get done.

2. Thinking is writing. A lot of people talk about how writing everyday is important, but I think thinking is way undervalued. Many of my books have spent months and years clanging around in my brain. And then, one day—boom! The answer (and it is often a simple one) hits like a lightening bolt, and suddenly, the stories, even the ones that I had struggled with through many versions, become clear.

And often in one go, I write it and it’s essentially done. It happened with Ghetto Cowboy (It’s a fish out of water story!), Yummy (it’s a graphic novel!), Chess Rumble, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Lee & Low, 2007)(the whole book is a chess match!) and Surf Mules (the road trip is like the shark in "Jaws;" if you wait too long to see it, people will leave!). Thinking is good.

3. The story knows what it wants to be. This is the main lesson I learned from making my latest book, Yummy. Sometimes we force the story into places it doesn’t want to go, and, surprise, it ends up not working. I was a filmmaker when I first thought of telling the true story of an 11-year-old gangbanger who made the cover of TIME magazine in 1994.

But movies turned out to be the wrong medium when it came to asking myself why I should tell this story. It turned out Yummy really wanted to be a graphic novel.

Young teens needed to experience this story, kids who might be drawn to gangs. But ten-year-olds would not get into an R-rated movie version of Yummy, nor could schools show it. But as a middle-grade story in a comic format? Bingo. That would appeal to urban boys who don’t read. The book wrote itself after that.

4. Follow your characters down the rabbit hole. I often think of myself as a kind of documentary filmmaker in writer’s clothing. I create the world and its inhabitants, but then I let them go and follow them around to see what they do or how they get out of the situations I create for them. I literally don’t know what will happen. They become living, breathing people and they end up leading me. Christopher Walken once said: “If you can’t surprise yourself, how do you expect to surprise anyone else?” Listen to your characters. Be surprised.

5. Become a child, and see the world for the first time. I’ve spent years learning the craft of storytelling, mostly as a filmmaker, where structure is everything.

So now when I approach a story, I deliberately try to forget everything I know and approach it as naively as possible. I usually don’t outline or plot. I know where I am starting and basically where I am trying to go, but I don’t worry at all about hitting certain plot points by certain pages. Like in real life, I like to wander and explore.

The excitement of the unknown is like being a child experiencing something for the first time. It's why I write YA.

I once saw Michael Stipe draw a circle on a window and say, we all start a new project in the same spot and as we make our way around the circle, we learn and grow and work until we become masters of our craft. But the act of creating every new project must start the circle over, every time: naïve and fresh like a newborn baby.

The story must be a real experience not a calculated venture.

6. Pace yourself: the two-page rule. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I used to write by inspiration, and when it would hit, I would write until I had nothing left. I’d write myself out. Problem was, it might take days or weeks to refuel and have another go.

So now I pace myself. I limit myself to say, two-to-three pages a day, even if I have six-to-eight in me. What happens by forcing myself to stop, is that those extra pages ferment in my brain until the next morning and boom, it comes rushing out, already pre-written.

The more days that pass like this, the more the reserve builds, and by the end, I am writing my pages in 20 minutes as opposed to eight hours of struggle.

It is also important to then give yourself the rest of the day off as a reward. Don’t worry, your brain is thinking for you (see above).

7. When an unexpected door opens, step on through to the other side. I have a list on my wall of about 25 stories that will be my next book, in the order in which they will come.

But usually (almost always), they rarely make it off the list as planned. It’s usually the eleventh-hour surprise that takes over and becomes my next book.

And it happens while I am playing around with my top three or four ideas on the list. It sneaks up on me from out of nowhere.

A project I handed in a few months ago was a perfect example. There I was, minding my own business, when out of the blue, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video. When I watched it, it made me sit up and go, wow! But it was only when I started Google-ing the subject matter to find out more that I discovered the real story.

And then it was like, WOW! It quickly consumed me. For two weeks I researched it like crazy. And then in a mad fit, I wrote the whole thing in another few weeks or so, and there it was. One minute, it wasn’t even a kernel of an idea, the next, it was a finished book. Completely unexpected.

So don’t be afraid to walk through those unanticipated doors when they pop open and invite you in. You never know what you’ll find.

I’ll admit I’ve had my doubts as I’ve spent the last few months thinking about writing my current work-in-progress novel.

How did I ever do this before? How in God’s name did I ever write six books? How am I ever going to do it again? But as I look at this list, I am oddly comforted. I remember what I’ve learned and that the final step to beginning a new novel is this:

Barton Fink was right: There's no road map for the life of the mind.

So don’t overthink it. Just let go. Get in the car, turn on the engine, and drive.

You will find your way.

Cynsational Notes

G. Neri is the winner of the 2010 IRA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for Chess Rumble, an American Library Association Notable Book.

He is also the author of the YA novel Surf Mules. His latest book, Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, was named one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews. It also has received five starred reviews--from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, School Library Journal, the Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books, and VOYA.

G. Neri lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife and daughter.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Writing Across Formats: Author Interview Round-up

The Writing Across Formats interview series features conversations with well established children's-YA authors about creating a range of books--why they do so, what it's taught them, and the pressures of author branding.

Click link from author name for more information about that contributor. Click link from "see WAF interview" to read more of their thoughts.

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

"It's like when you're writing with a graphite pencil. After a while, the tip gets worn on one side, so the line is flat and broad and sloppy. Then you turn the pencil a bit, exercise a different part of the point, and the line is thin and tense again."

"Actually, my writing began to 'grow' with my kids. As I found myself reading older books to my boys, I also found myself wanting to write for those older audiences. Nothing more mysterious than that.

"And there is the boredom factor. Maybe I have ADD and just can't seem to concentrate on one form for too long."

"When I first started writing, I wanted to write a historical fiction novel. But with two little boys underfoot, progress on the first novel was very slow.

"At the same time, I was reading and enjoying dozens of picture books each week with my sons. Soon I found myself with several picture book ideas of my own (inspired by the boys), which gave me a fun break from the more serious subject of the novel."

"...the ideas came first, and they dictated the form and the age level. I don't think I ever sat down and said, 'Now I'm going to write a mystery,' for example, or 'Now I'm going to write a nonfiction book--what shall it be about?'"

"I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to 'throw away.' Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam."

"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."

"...I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.

"My career began as an editor of children's nonfiction, primarily for the school library market--and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.

"And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell--what was I passionate about--what was I yearning to say?

"Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form."

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

"At the end of the day, they all require a good story. Even a concept book has to have a narrative arc. That sounds cliche in a way, but with every book I write I learn something new that informs the next book, regardless of the subject or the form."

"...the need to be clever and creative in a 32-page fiction picture book--to make that book stand out in the marketplace and on bookshelves--has made me more aware of the possibilities for that same sort of cleverness and creativity in other genres and formats, even in nonfiction. Maybe especially in nonfiction."

"...all of my writing is more lyrical because I write picture books. It is more concentrated for having written 150-word nonfiction. It is more intense for the experience of the shorter chapter books. And when I climb into something longer, the sprawl is utterly satisfying."

"Writing in itself is a learning experience. Picture books have taught me about rhythm; easy-to-reads have taught me to write a story using fewer words; novels have taught about story arc; nonfiction books have taught me that they can be as interesting as fiction; and poetry has taught me that I’ve discovered a voice I didn’t know that I had."

"For me, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Atheneum, 2008) gave me some welcome brain oxygen--not that picture books are easy, because they aren't, but the demands are so different.

"I can see the whole of a picture book at once, unlike a novel; I can focus on the level of the word in a picture book (you can do that when you have 500 words and not 75,000); I can leave breathing holes for the illustrator. It was so restful in a funny kind of way."

"...poetry taught me to choose words carefully and to a deep awareness of imagery, which has helped me in writing novels. The structure of fiction, even such devices as foreshadowing and character development, helped me be a better writer of nonfiction. Poetry also taught me about voice, finding my own voice and finding the voices of the characters who have come to inhabit my fiction."

"In the thirteen years I've been writing for children, I've now dabbled in several genres and formats: poetry, picture books, historical fiction, humor, fantasy, and nonfiction.

"What I've learned is that, while each has its own particular requirements in terms of structure and technique, first and foremost they all require a compelling story.

"A great story trumps all."

"...poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry--a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)--whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it."

--Shutta Crum, see WAF interview

"When I wrote my (so far!) only picture book, for example, Molly's Family, illustrated by Sharon Wooding (FSG, 2004), I had to concentrate so much on learning how to do it that I didn't think much at first about what I was learning that would be useful elsewhere.

"But I know it helped me become even more conscious of the need for economy in all other forms, for I tend to be, er, long winded. Short stories help me practice that skill, too."

"One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialog.

"For example, my forty page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.

"It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetical and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.

"The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words, helped me learn to keep the novels more tight."

"I'm an auditory person. The voice and dialogue of my stories usually comes easier for me. Adding the visual details is not as easy. Picture books remind me that visual details matter (even if the illustrator is the one providing those)."

"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."

"One good thing about publishing in all genres is that it makes you more hire-able for schools who want an author who can speak to every grade level K-12, and has books to sell for every age. Also, at conferences, I've been needed a few times to 'fill in the gaps' (e.g.: speak about writing for teenagers when the other speakers are picture book or middle grade writers only)."

"I tell my college students that all of your present writing will inform your future writing, and that has been true for me.

"Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my nonfiction. If I'm investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so.

"It is the 'why is this story important to you' question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.

"And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing."

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

"I really don't like the idea of an agent applying pressure to their clients to stick to the same thing (which I hear happens occasionally). The agent should be there to serve you and your inspiration, not to shoehorn you.

"And frankly, I think many writers actually achieve their popularity by writing for various different age levels and in various different forms. While in my case it hasn't specifically helped my career, it certainly hasn't hurt it.

"And no, I don't think it's done much damage to, say, Kate DiCamillo's career, or E. Lockhart's (though she oddly publishes under different names), or Kevin Henkes' career, or Adam Rex's, or Kathi Appelt's, or Alison McGhee's. (To name a few off the top of my head.)

"For some of these writers, I actually feel that it helps in that kids start to love them as early readers and stick with them as they grow into their teenage years. That's a beautiful thing."

"I can understand, from a marketing standpoint, how a publisher might want to create a 'brand.' But to me, that undermines the basic human drive for creativity.

"I think humans are larger and wider than brands. This is not to say that a good mystery writer is going to necessarily be successful writing a romance, any more than Madonna can be successful writing a children's book (and I had such high hopes).

"But I resent and resist the urge for anyone to be cornered into a pigeonhole. I think it underestimates what is possible in our human ability to stretch and discover and to create.

"Imagine what might have happened if E.B. White had been branded? He was an excellent, well known author of adult letters before he ever wrote Charlotte's Web (HarperCollins, 1952). What a loss to the world it would have been if his publisher had refused to publish that book because it might have damaged his brand."

"I've never felt any pressure to brand myself that way. Are other writers receiving that pressure? From whom? Who would do such an awful thing? And why would a writer let that happen?

"If I couldn't have the freedom to write whatever type of book I feel drawn to writing, I'd have a hard time seeing the point in pursuing this line of work. It's supposed to be fun."

"...we all should be writing whatever we most need to write for whatever audience we are best equipped to reach. But in the early years of a career, I suppose the realities of the market support a certain amount of 'branding,' though I dislike the term and all its implications.

"My pattern--a pattern that was forced on me rather than chosen--was to get myself established with one kind of book, the hard-hitting, realistic, upper-middle-grade novel, before I turned to anything else It's what I came into the field needing to write.

"When my children were grown and grandchildren became part of my life, my emotional focus shifted, and I began to have a real need--not just a passing desire--to write younger.

"I'm approaching my 71st birthday, and I find myself feeling farther and farther removed from the world of tweets and twitters and text messages and all that is so integral a part of the lives of the kids I used to write for. I don't think the emotional reality has changed for our young people, but the same emotional realities are being housed in very different vessels.

"I find myself, even when I write novels, moving younger, back into the space where family is central, because that has always been the only territory I know how to write out of. And its harder, these days, to spin a story totally out of family if you are writing about older kids.

"Thus, I have turned to animal stories or to novellas about younger kids."

"I'll add another piece that isn't often spoken of. It's enormously difficult to support yourself solely with writing novels. They take too long to write and, unless they are unusually successful, they often don't sell enough to pay for the time committed to them. My collection of YA short stories, Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins (Clarion, 2007), took me two years to write.

"The publisher and I had great expectations it, but we quickly discovered that it was an equal-opportunity book. There was something in there to offend just about everyone. And while the books flowed out quickly with the first buzz that surrounded the collection, they came flowing back to the publisher with equal speed. So considered solely in financial terms, those two years were a bust.

"For the last twenty-two years of my career, I've been supporting myself exclusively with my writing and a little teaching on the side. Being able to sell the younger pieces has made that possible."

"For years I wrote just what came to my heart, in the form it wanted to be. I published an easy-to-read, a biography in prose, a novel in prose, and a collection of folklore from Puerto Rico.

"Editors kept telling me that readers wouldn’t know me unless I wrote in a genre or specific form. I, however, know well-known authors who, from the very beginning of their careers, wrote in different forms. Why couldn’t I do the same?

"I want to write whatever my heart dictates."

"...this sort of pressure is not healthy. It can lead to writers repeating themselves, literally imitating themselves in the hopes of holding on to an audience.

"I'd rather think of the demands of the story itself, the form itself, rather than the imagined or expected audience you would be trying to please.

"No author should be expected to always write the same sort of book or focus on the same subject each time.

"The danger of this is especially great when a writer's early work finds a wide and eager audience that expects more of the same. The curse of the successful first book.

"Writers need to have space to hear their own stories, their own poems, while they are writing them. I know that I often feel in the midst of a story as if I am not creating but listening, not crafting a tale, but taking dictation."

"'s very unfortunate, unless the author truly wants to write just one kind of book. For me, it would take away what I most love about writing: the ability to express myself in many different ways.

"Just as my reading choices are eclectic, so are my writing habits. Some days I want to be silly, other days I want to slow down and be more reflective.

"What I write is who I am. And I am not a brand."

"Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be 'branded,' though I do understand why some publishers do it. I've even been told in rejection letters that a particular manuscript isn't 'Shutta.' How can that be? I wrote it!"

"I don't like it much; it's like typecasting in theater. I'm known primarily for writing LGBTQ YAs, and in a way that's been very helpful to me, and of course in many ways I'm proud of being know for it.

"But I fear my other books have suffered, because reviewers especially and perhaps some publishers as well expect me to write only LGBTQ books.

"Don't get me wrong; those books are very important to me! But so are the others that I write!"

"Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a 'multicultural' author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote.

"When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Likewise, my most recent books have been picture books.

"Now, I’m finding it difficult to re-enter the YA market because a few years have gone by. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing."

--Sherry Garland; see WAF interview

"There are certainly advantages to sticking to the same kind of book. Folks come to expect a certain type of story for a certain age group and the writer delivers. But that's not the kind of writing life I want.

"Thank goodness I write for a publisher that has allowed me to explore outside of the box. When I turn in a complex novel, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to focus on Piper Reed (Scholastic, 2008-). I owe my sanity to that character.

"The downside to writing for different ages is that, after almost 12 years of being published, there are still a lot of people out there who don't know my name. I think some of that has to do with my exploring different forms. That being said, I wouldn't have it any other way."

"I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion (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, is scheduled for Spring 2011 -- four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion."

"...for some, it's not any one particular book, but a body of work.

"For example, Nancy Werlin is a definite YA author, yet each book is different. Teachers know that a new Nancy Werlin book is not going to be a picture book, but an intriguing novel for teenagers. Her fans know what to expect. Likewise, a Mo Willems book is going to be a simple picture book or early reader, with fun animal characters. An April Pulley Sayre book is going to be a nonfiction picture book about natural history. A book any teacher can tie into curriculum.

"So in that respect, I think it's a good thing to have a 'corner of the market' in which you excel.

"I used to be known for writing funny/scary monster books, but again, I have to keep myself entertained and growing as a writer, so I continue to try new things.

"My 'advantage' now after publishing over 50 books is name recognition and longevity in the marketplace. Even though my books do not fall into only one genre, I'd like to think that by now, teachers, librarians, and book reviewers take note when they see a new 'Dian Curtis Regan book'--whatever it may be."

"Well, I'm resistant to pressure of any kind, so...

"But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment. It's not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept."

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference. They were posted occasionally on Cynsations over 2010.
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