Friday, November 11, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Dead Girl Walking (Book #1 in the Dead Girl series) by Linda Joy Singleton Price Drop for Nook Readers: now available for $2.51. Note: you can also order a paperback copy from Indiebound. Read a Cynsations interview with Linda Joy Singleton about Dead Girl Walking.

Things I've Learned from Beverly Cleary by Caroline Starr Rose from Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Peek: "Though she doesn't shy away from awkward moments, there is a tenderness in the way Cleary deals with Ramona when she throws up in class, when she kicks her bedroom walls in anger, when she names her doll the most beautiful name she can think of."

Age: Are You Too Old to Write? by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "You have tremendous writing potential because you’ve lived long enough to have learned a lot. You have life experience!" Note: looking for a role model? Try Betty X Davis.

American Indians and Diversity in Young Adult Literature by Debbie Reese from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: "The story itself is heartbreaking for what it tells us about government programs that, in this case, used Native children as subjects for scientific experiments. Debby’s book (My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (Marshall Cavendish)) is inspiring, too, because it also tells us just how strong Indigenous people and our Nations are, in spite of all the governmental programs designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man.'" Note: includes bibliography of middle grade and YA recommendations.

Diversity Matters: Trent Reedy on Insider/Outsider Narratives and the Young Afghan Girl Who Inspired Words in the Dust from Tracy at Tall Tales and Short Stories. Peek: "It’s important for all writers of realistic fiction, whether cultural insiders or outsiders, to strive to write a story that is at least possible, while accepting that the story will not, cannot, represent or be 'true to life' about the entire population at large."

Encouragement for Writers: An Agent Success Story with Jenny Murray from Christy's Creative Space. Peek: "I received a few personal rejections. They were gifts because they helped me see the hard work that still needed to be done. They gave me direction."

2012 Books by Austinites by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.Check out upcoming titles from this dynamic childrens-YA writing community.

Attention Texas Authors & Illustrators! Please consider making a donation to the Austin SCBWI Bastrop Library Fund. Peek: "They have planned to tie two children’s books together with a ribbon and put a package into as many children’s hands as they possibly can." See more information.

Anneographies: children's book author Anne Bustard on her favorite picture book biographies and a few collected biographies, too, birthday by birthday.

Early Readers vs. Picture Books by Robin Smith from The Horn Book. Peek: "Books for new readers tend to have a few characteristics that are not required for picture books."

How To Set Up An Author Or Book Page On Google+ (Part 1) by Debbie Ridpath Ohi from Inkygirl. Peek: "You may already have a Google+ Profile page. While there are many similarities between a Google+ Profile Page and a Google+ Page, here are some differences..."

Writing on a Theme by Mary Kole from Peek: "What is the big question you want your story to answer? What is the thing you’re asking or hoping to express about the universe and life itself? What are you exploring? What do you wish you could solve about your own life? What have you observed about being alive? That’s your Big Idea and/or Big Question and I think every book should have it…otherwise, what’s the point?" See also Mary on Query Personalization and Territory by Laura Oliver from Glimmer Train Press; source: Jane Friedman.

Recommended Realistic Fiction for Boys by Kristen Remenar from ReaderKidZ. Peek: "My son loves his family very much, but he doesn’t want to read about families, or school, or anything to do with relationships, and these are the most common elements in contemporary realistic fiction for kids.  So I found books that met the requirements that are funny, or have an irresistible plot twist, or tell a story where the reader wishes he could be there, too."

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Shandra Strickland from Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "Picture books give me freedom to interpret the story in my own way. I can add elements that aren’t necessarily in the text, and I have plenty of room to develop the story. Because I have more experience at making books now, my approach to illustrating an emergent reader would be much different than when I was starting out."

The Writing Life by Sherryl Clark from Books and Writing. Peek: "Making writing your life can mean other unchallenging, boring things can fall off your plate, and you let them without any sense of obligation. Your life is now a challenge instead of a trudge from day to day." Source: Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid.

Treating the Pain of Rejection by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "The only way writers can avoid rejection is to avoid submitting work. Considering that abstinence is a pretty harsh therapy, I suggest you do the exact opposite: submit everything, submit often, submit everywhere. Kind of a hair-of-the-dog approach."

Call for Entries! Austin Public Library Friends Foundation Award (Children's Book $500)(YA Book $500) from the Texas Institute of Letters. Deadline: Jan. 9 postmark. Requirements include a "statement of eligibility confirming that the entrant was born in Texas or lived in Texas for at least two consecutive years at some time. A work whose subject matter substantially concerns Texas is also eligible."

Two Promotional Things Every Middle Grade Author Should Do by Lisa Schroeder from Lisa's Little Corner of the Internet. Peek: "By the way, I get a lot of mother-daughter book clubs requesting my discussion guide. Do you know how happy this makes me? Very happy!"

A Seven-Point System for Evaluating Picture Books for a Wide Range of Audiences by Uma Krishnaswami from Spellbinders. Peek: "Think about picture books in terms of these criteria. Keep the related considerations in mind to find the right ones for audiences from elementary to high school and beyond."

Set Your Goals: Step by Step by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! Peek: "A regular review of your personal goals can keep you on track, or help you recognize when it’s time to change. Once you identify your priorities, you can take steps to get there." See also Procrastination Tip: Jump In! by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid.

Author Impact of Amazon Kindle Owners' Lending Library from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: "Right now, a major issue is how payment to publishers will be handled, and then how publishers will in turn pay their authors."

See also This Week for Writers from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing.

Global Connections

Global Connections to Authors & Books with the Hans Christian Andersen Award from

"In an effort to build awareness about the remarkable books written for children and teens across the globe, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) has established the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Every two years, one author and one illustrator are selected as recipients of the award, considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious in children’s publishing. Maurice Sendak, for example, is the only illustrator from the United States to ever win this award.

"In the spirit of IBBY’s mission to foster global connections to great books and stories, has developed the following digital collection of recordings and websites. This archive introduces fans of children’s and young adult books to the authors and illustrators that have been nominated for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award.

"We contacted and recorded as many of the 57 nominees from 32 countries as we could, and present below audio recordings of these men and women accurately pronouncing and speaking about their names, as well as their personal websites or Wikipedia entries.

"We hope that these materials enable readers to become aware of the passion and the personalities that bring books and children together, worldwide." See more information.

Light Up the Library Auction Update

Join in Jean Reidy's Light Up the Library online auction celebrating the release of her latest picture book Light Up the Night, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Hyperion, 2011) and benefiting the library at Musana Children's Home in Iganga, Uganda! The auction will continue until Nov. 18.

Highlights include:

Picture Book Month
Picture Book Idea Month

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco (Candlewick, 2011)!  To enter, comment on this post (click preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "The Flint Heart" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 14.

Notes: Read a sample chapter (PDF) and A Conversation with the Creators of The Flint Heart (PDF), both from Candlewick. Listen to an audio of Katherine Paterson discussing the book.

Enter to win Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Candlewick, 2011)!  To enter, comment on this post (click preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Lala Salma" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30.

Note: View an inside spread.

The winner of Waiting to Forget by Sheila Kelly Welch (namelos, 2011) was Tessa in California. Read a guest post by Sheila on How a Bionic Author Joined the Digital Age.

Celebrate Malinda Lo's newly redesigned and relaunched official author site by entering to win the tie-in giveaway, featuring 10 signed hardcover copies of Huntress (Little, Brown), as well as three paperback U.K. editions, three paperback U.K. editions of Ash (Little, Brown), and a bunch of Ash posters (12×18 inches).

Enter to win Malinda Lo Giveaway!

This Week's Cynsations Posts
Party of the Week (That, Alas, I Missed)

From the opening reception for the 22nd Annual Children's Illustration Exhibit Nov. 6 to Jan. 15 at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts; see more pics!

Front Row: Paul Jacobs, Rebecca Guay, Diane deGroat, Richard Michelson, Karla Gudeon, Sara Levine, Nancy Carpenter, Angela DiTerlizzi, Heidi Stemple; Second Row: Steven Withrow, Lesley Breen Withrow, Jennifer Swender, Jane Yolen, Jane Dyer, Barry Moser, Burleigh Muten, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Lesleá Newman, Kathy Brown, Tony DiTerlizzi; Third Row: Wendell Minor, Jules Feiffer, Raul Colón, David Hyde Costello, Neil Waldman; Back Row: Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Tom Warburton, Scott Fischer, Mo Willems, David Milgrim

More Personally

Thank you to Carmen A. Escamilla, the librarians/IT gurus, and students who made my online visit yesterday with Alexander High School, L.B.J. High School, United High School, United High School (9th Grade) and United South High School in Laredo, Texas such a great experience! Thanks for your wonderful questions and for your enthusiasm for the Tantalize series!

Thoanks to Bethany Hegedus for sending this shelf shot of Blessed (Walker Books, 2011) from a bookshop in Dublin, Ireland.

Is Austin, Texas Paradise for YA Authors? by David Duhr from Publishing Perspectives. Peek: "Where can you find a tight-knit, post-Potter community with strong leadership and a mentoring tradition for young adult writers? In the middle of Texas, y’all."

Cover Stories: Tantalize: Kieren's Story from Melissa Walker. Peek: "The cover illustration of Kieren is very masculine at a time when depictions of boys in YA cover art tend to skew pretty. This feels authentic to Kieren, who’s determined not to be a danger to others but is still willing to go dominant when interacting with other shifters."

Congratulations to fellow Austinite Cory Putnam Oates on the release of The Veil (Octane, 2011)!

Find me at facebook, twitter, JacketFlap, Google+, LiveJournal, and YouTube.

Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing in Artists Alley at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center. Greg Leitich Smith will be sharing the table, and fellow Austinite Jeff Crosby will be featured at another table in the alley.

Also look for Writing Ninjas, Jessica Lee Anderson, Jason Henderson, K.A. Holt, P.J. Hoover, Mari Mancusi, Cory Putnam Oakes, Joy Preble, Madeline Smoot, Tracy Deebs at booths #521/523. See more on Cynthia's appearance at Austin Comic Con.

Holiday Tree Lighting and Author Signing at LBJ State Park! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith for the tree lighting ceremony at LBJ State Park from 4:30 p.m. Dec. 18. Cynthia will be signing Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010). Lucy Johnson will be speaking briefly at the event, and Santa may make an appearance, too. See more information.

See also Cynthia's upcoming events in Austin, Albuquerque, Tucson, Sandy (Utah), Southampton (New York), and Montpelier (Vermont).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Agent to Agent Interview: Erin Murphy & Tricia Lawrence

EM: We've had an interesting, unexpected growth spurt at Erin Murphy Literary Agency over the last few months.

It all started when I was brainstorming about how I could manage my time better so I was focused even more on my clients. I figured out that one discrete chunk of stuff was social media/website work, and I was trying to find someone who could do that for me.

And along comes this email from Tricia Lawrence, who had 16 years of experience as a freelance editor and as an early adopter of social media who had been on the cutting edge of using social media to promote books and authors. She was looking for an internship so she could explore becoming a literary agent. It was a match made in heaven.

TL: I admit it! I have been following Erin's agency for a few years (you know, kid standing outside a candy store, hands pressed up against the glass, wishing with all her might to go inside?) and when Erin brought on Ammi-Joan Paquette in 2009, I was the typical heartbreaking story: sitting in a cubicle in my employer's London office, hating every beige and gray minute. I thought to myself, "If I could ever do that, my life would be perfect" (yes, I was that person) and then promptly forgot about it and went back to copyediting medical disorder monographs.

EMLA New Release
Oh, how my life has changed, and I am so glad I sent that email to Erin. It was a total long shot, but I was encouraged by a writer friend to just try. And I did and Erin was so gracious and open! I like when life works like that.

EM: Me too! Not too long after Tricia started working with us, Ammi-Joan Paquette and I had our annual agency retreat, and Tricia came.

She did a session about using social media to market and did one-on-one consultations with our client attendees, and so many authors came out of those consultations inspired to try some new things—empowered, I'd say.

It had all been this big amorphous "should" to a lot of our clients before, and Tricia made it concrete and approachable. Some people are just naturals at it, but others need some TLC to make the leap.

TL: What book promotion boils down to is telling a really good story. Most all marketing (even if you're selling toothbrushes) is about a good story. So authors have a particularly convenient head start on this. They already have the story!

But promoting a book must become about supporting the current book and the past books and any future books, so I ask authors to look closely at their body of work (if they're unpublished, what is their passion?) and try to find patterns—a theme underlying everything that they write, talk, dream about.

EMLA New Release
Authors write a book from their heart and soul; promotion for books can come from that same place, I say. I call this an axiom—it is my way of avoiding the dreaded "platform" that we are all just sick of now—and an author's axiom can be anything: unlikely friendships, hope in darkness, bullying kills a bully's brain cells, a thesis of sorts that an author is seeking to prove in her books and in her life and what she cares deeply about.

That is what you blog about, talk about, use to develop themes in current books and new books, tweet about (especially if current events can support your axiom; or start to argue with your axiom; we like conflict!), and of course, later on, can provide inspiration for future projects. Thus, an axiom must be bigger than a current book.

This is why I ask everyone to look at your past, your present, and your future when choosing an axiom. It's got to be big enough to support whatever you choose to do down the line.

That said, an axiom evolves as you grow. If you find an axiom that really fits you, that is a passion, that you cannot stop talking about no matter how much Erin Murphy wants you to (ahem, this is getting long!), then you know you've got something that will work.

Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette, EMLA client Phil Bildner, agent Erin Murphy, and newest EMLA agent Tricia Lawrence.

EM: It's so terrific to know that we can support our clients in this anxiety-causing area, but beyond that, I think it helps us in placing new books with editors.

These days, acquisitions committees are looking for reasons to sign this great manuscript over that great manuscript, and if an author is known to be promotion-averse, it can be the reason to say no.

Authors don't have to be marketing geniuses, they don't have to (and shouldn't) give an inordinate amount of time to marketing to the point that they don't have time to write, but people (readers, teachers and librarians, reporters) have to be able to find them.

EMLA New Release
Being able to read a writer's blog voice, online interview voice, and so on can instill a lot of confidence. It's so great when marketing and promotion departments know on the front end that promoting an author's book will be a partnership with the author doing his or her share.

We just got back from a week of meetings in New York, and people there are really interested to hear about the EMLA blog tours. We have a strong community at EMLA, and it's been wonderful to have that turn into not just a fun and supportive thing for our clients, which seemed like plenty of wonderfulness already—but now we're harnessing the strength of that community to spread the word about new books, too.

TL: Two EMLA clients came up to me at the retreat and suggested that we use our EMLA community to help launch new books. I think EMLA clients are genius!

When a new EMLA book is about to publish we usually have two or three clients volunteer to host that new book and author on their blogs. Sometimes, I put a call out on our forum, which always gets a great response! The launch date approaches and it's like fireworks in the sky—that book and author appear on a blog here and a blog here and over there—all different, but when it adds up, it makes a show!

EMLA New Bestseller
I think it's amazing to see a group of authors work together so well that they get excited about promoting each other (it is much easier to help promote others than themselves) and that in turn helps when each book comes out. The author is not alone; their axiom gets echoed throughout the blogosphere.

That's the power of social media.

EM: Tricia's so convincing, she even got me blogging! And now she's moving out of her internship into an agent role, seeking her own clients. It's been win-win.

I'd love to hear what other agencies are doing to aid their clients with promotion—I think, like many things with agencies, we all play to our strengths and develop our growth according to what opportunities come along, so it's often not a plotted-out kind of thing—one day, we just look around and realize, hey, we've got this whole new area we've developed!

More on Erin

Erin Murphy was born and raised in Arizona, and founded Erin Murphy Literary Agency in Flagstaff in 1999. She works with publishers of all sizes all over the U.S., and has placed clients' books with every major children's house in New York and Boston, but she cut her teeth in regional publishing.

She began her career at Northland Publishing/Rising Moon Books for Young Readers (a beloved decades-old Flagstaff company that was bought out in 2007), eventually becoming editor-in-chief, and was a member of the board of directors of PubWest, a professional development organization for small and mid-sized publishers in the West.

Erin represents writers and writer-illustrators of picture books, novels for middle-graders and young adults, and select nonfiction.

She is especially drawn to strong characters and heart-centered stories. In her spare time she loves walking, baking, kayaking, knitting, traveling, reading (often audiobooks), and powering through her Netflix queue.

You can read more about Erin's tastes and background in interviews here and here.

Bid for a chance to win a critique from Erin Murphy (50 pages or five picture books) at the Light Up the Library Auction.

Look for Erin at the Austin SCBWI Regional Conference Feb. 17 and Feb. 18, 2012, and the SCBWI Golden Gate Conference and Retreat at Asilomar from March 2 to March 4, 2012.

More on Tricia 

Tricia Lawrence is the "Pacific Northwest branch" of EMLA—born and raised in Oregon, and now lives in Seattle. After 16 years of working as a developmental and production-based copyeditor (from kids book to college textbooks, but mostly college textbooks), she joined the EMLA team in March 2011 as a social media strategist hoping to learn from Erin and Joan about agenting.

As associate agent, Tricia represents middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She's looking for strong worldbuilding, wounded narrators, and stories that grab a reader and won't let go. You can find Tricia's writing about blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and other social media topics (for authors and the publishing industry at large) here.

Enter to win a Social Media Strategy Package from Tricia at the Light Up the Library Auction.

Look for Tricia at the SCBWI Western Washington Annual Conference on April 21 and April 22, 2012 in Redmond, Washington.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Guest Post: Brenda Reeves Sturgis on Keeping the Faith

By Brenda Reeves Sturgis

Faith is believing in something that you can’t see, can’t hear, but can feel deep in your heart!

Pursuing your dream of becoming a published author is no easy task. It’s not for people who refuse to push through adversity.

Becoming a writer begins first and foremost in your mind. When times get tough and you want to quit, it is this vision that will help carry you through to victory.

I spent my teenage years holed up in my room, filling books with handwritten poetry in verse. However, I never thought about becoming a published writer until I attended an author visit at my daughter’s school in 2004. It was there, in that little school in rural Maine, that I learned about the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators.

I took a leap of faith and joined SCBWI.

Traveling to New York was a big deal to a small-town girl. While attending my first SCBWI conference, it took every ounce of strength I could muster not to turn and dash out the door. Instead, I kept moving forward with faith in my dream.

Doubt crawled in, “Who was I to think I could ever step in this arena? What did I have to offer the publishing world?” There were over 1000 people at the SCBWI event--authors, illustrators, agents, and editors. It was intimidating. I sat in the back, near the door (for a quick escape), listening, learning and longing to become a published author.

Afterwards, I joined my first critique group. It was in this group that I penned 10 Turkeys in the Road (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), and this was another step forward.

When the rejection letters came, I tossed them in the trash. When you decide to become a writer you will face rejection, revision, and rewrites! You must seek and hold onto your vision.

Maybe that vision for you is a completed manuscript. Maybe it’s the acceptance of representation from an agent. It might even be thoughts of becoming a New York Times best-selling author.

Whatever your dream, you can achieve it. But not without faith—faith in yourself and faith in your talent. I reasoned with myself: if I quit, I would never know success.

When I signed with my first agent, I was euphoric, but after two and a half years, we parted ways amicably. After six months of querying, I signed with my second agent, but our communication styles didn’t mesh.

The vision of my career as a children’s author (and all that came with that) was foremost in my mind. I couldn’t quit. Visiting schools, attending signings, reading at children’s hospitals, and all that it would entail...that was my goal. I had to do whatever it took.

Eight more months of querying agents, researching boutique and large agencies, new and seasoned agents...and I received great feedback, a few close encounters, but not the perfect-fit-for-me agent.

I was at a crossroads. At one point I unplugged my computer, gave away two-thirds of my books to the local library, and quit. That lasted three days. Then I said, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me!”

I follow editors and agents on facebook and am active on social media. I had heard of Emma Dryden of Drydenbks through mutual colleagues.

Emma knows this business, inside and out. She’s highly respected and vastly admired by industry professionals. I surmised that Emma was my last hope to help me figure out a strategy. I had a long chat with my husband and told him, “I have to hire her. She’s my last chance to get anywhere in this business! She’ll know what I should do!” I had faith that Emma was my answer.

I hired Emma for three hours as a consultant to tell me what I was doing wrong. Was it my writing? Was it my approach? Was it my expectations?

This ended up being the best move I ever could have made. Emma and I had a phone conversation. She looked over my work, and after our consultation, we had a great game plan.

My work was not in question. It was my query letter that needed tweaking.

Emma assured me that my expectations for what I wanted and needed in an agent were attainable. She loved my writing and compared my work to two of the best rhymers in this business--a huge compliment that propelled me forward. We tightened my query letter.

Emma was happy to allow me to use her name in my query e-mails, and her name alone opened many doors for me. Every agent responded promptly and favorably within days.

Within three days after our consultation, I did indeed find the perfect agent for me, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary.

After reading my query letter, Karen was eager to speak with me. She had contacted Emma about me to find out more.

Karen said that, because Emma had praised my work, she was confident that my manuscripts would be great. So she asked to see my entire body of work. I gladly sent her all of my polished picture book projects.

Having Emma in my corner made all the difference for me. The difference between getting nowhere and going everywhere!

Karen Grencik and I have the same goals, the same communication styles, the same vision. My work is being submitted and read. We’re moving forward. Karen is confident she can sell my manuscripts, even in this down market.

My relationship with Karen is easy, based on mutual respect. She totally gets me and my idiosyncrasies, and she calms my fears.

Karen has a good attitude about rejections. We’re in it for the long haul!

Moishe's Miracle, illustrated by David.
My first book, 10 Turkeys in the Road, illustrated by David Slonim, has been published by Marshall Cavendish. Scholastic has picked it up for the book clubs and book fairs. I’m on my way!

Looking back over my seven-year journey, I’ve grown. I’ve learned. I’ve dug deep and carried on. Was it easy? No, not one bit! Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely! I’ve reached the summit, it’s breathtaking! Come up here and see for yourself.

Keep writing. Keep believing. Keep turning over your own stones.

Reach, stretch, breathe!

You’ll be so glad that you made the climb!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Guest Post: Kimberley Griffiths Little on Deepening Character with Setting

By Kimberley Griffiths Little

By the time you've written several manuscripts, most writers begin to realize that you're either a Character Writer or a Plot Writer. Meaning that the jump-start in your brain comes from a particular character that inspires you–or a tidbit of a plot, some sort of quirk or danger in the world.

Me, I’m a setting writer. Beautiful plantations, medieval cities, unique terrain, are a springboard of ideas. Setting inspires me deeply. When I feel that tingly magic of a certain place oozing through my soul, I dive into my research with arms stretched wide and then nearly drown, surfacing only to hit more libraries, buy more books, do university or special collections research, and interview local folks to explore it as fully as I can.

Of course, character and plot intersect constantly. They are the two most talked about novel elements.

But which comes first, plot or character?

It’s the chicken-and-egg phenomenon. Which is more important? Is our main character the most important element in our stories or books; their personality and relationships and motivations? Or is it plot, the problems, the personal journey, and the very cool adventure we’re weaving together?

Character and plot do go hand in hand–but to me they are very much the same because you cannot have one without the other.

“Your novel is the story (plot) of a person (character) and how they grow and change (character) during the course of the events (plot).”

So you may be wondering how setting intersects with character and plot? Does setting really matter? Isn’t it one of those elements that can be added later, or decided at any time, and does it actually play a crucial role?

Well, try getting away with that to any science fiction or fantasy writer! World-building (setting) for a believable science fiction story can take months or years and is an integral element in a can’t-do-without-it -way for the world and plot elements to make sense.

Think of Harry Potter without Hogwarts, "Mad Max" without Thunderdome, or Jane Eyre without Lowood School, or Katniss without District 12.

Your characters simply cannot be floating “somewhere” in time and space. We’ve all read novels where the story takes place in an undefined or made up city. Any Town, USA. Maybe the state is named, maybe not. The characters and plot of a story set in the Bronx is going to be completely different than Tucson or San Francisco, the plains of Kansas, or the swamps of Louisiana.

Stories I wrote eons ago were like that—set Anyplace, Someplace, I’mNotSureWherePlace—and they weren’t very strong stories. My characters did not come alive, they weren’t three-dimensional people, and my plots just didn’t matter that much because where was everything happening? Some cliff? Some desert? Some shopping mall? A vanilla person living in a vanilla environment having a sort of vanilla adventure. No offense to vanilla lovers out there!

Setting, is the place your characters were born, the place they live, the neighborhood, house, specific city and state.

Checklist of How Setting Influences Your Character and Plot
  1. The type of person they are, their personality, likes/dislikes, fears, habits.
  2. The family they have, the neighborhood/town/city/state they live in.
  3. The problems they might encounter.
  4. Other people who influence them--for good or ill.
  5. Their religion and belief system.
  6. The culture/quirks/mannerisms of the setting.
  7. The nuances of your character's dialogue, their inner thoughts and problem solving.
  8. How your character(s) view the world.

All these elements spring from setting.

In a book that takes you to a place you’ve never been before.... When the author brings that place--that location--alive, setting often become its own character. You can practically feel the setting, taste it, touch it, hear it, and smell it. When a book does that, the reader is truly transported to a new world and is able to get inside the main character in a whole new way and on many different levels.

Adventures in Setting

Over the years, I’ve practically become an amateur historian or anthropologist. I love to see new places, to experience what the local people do, find out what they eat and wear, what they think and believe, discover the types of families they have, their environment, work, dialect.

Twelve years ago when I first stepped onto a boat on Bayou Teche, Louisiana, I knew I was in a completely new and magical world. I’ve returned so often that now I stay with local friends I’ve made. I've visited every small town in Cajun country, eaten the food, talked with everybody I can at stores, gas stations, restaurants, and museums. I've danced at several fais-do dos, visited schools and graveyards and homes.

I also make sure I'm out in those bayous and swamps every time I visit, too. It is deeply magical and satisfying to me. I breathe the air, feel the sun, take in all the sounds and smells and sights.

It’s gratifying when local people read my books and think I was born and raised there. I want to punch the air and shout, "Yes! I did it!"

Examples of how setting works:

The house and town and environment of Livie Mouton from The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010, 2011), affects how she sees the world, her relationship with her parents, her religion, the way she speaks, her favorite foods, her summer bedroom in the galerie, as well as the things she does (like hiding a baby alligator, going to visit the priest to light candles for her comatose mother, or visit a Cajun healer to find out how she can bring her mamma back to life).

The bayou setting also affects the way her older sister gets married, the worldview of her aunt who comes to visit, and the relationship she has with her rival cousin.

So setting affects the plot as well as character in huge, meaningful ways.

In Circle of Secrets (Scholastic, 2011), my character Shelby did not grow up on the bayou, She’s a “town” girl. She’s never been in a boat, never lived in a swamp cabin (or so she thinks!), and she's homesick in this strange and wild environment.

Shelby’s background affects how she thinks, her opinions, how she interacts with the people of Bayou Bridge, and it greatly affects the relationship with her mother. Shelby's experiences affect the plot in huge and meaningful ways. Especially when she ends up alone in a boat and finds herself in the middle of the bayou during a deadly storm. How does she react? What are her fears? How will she survive?

For years and years, I wrote as a setting writer, while every other writer talked about starting from character or plot. I thought I was doing something wrong. Backwards. Now I realize my gut instincts were good for me.

I've also noticed that setting has a bigger role than ever before in new books, and I’m happy to see it. I think full realized settings brings stories and characters alive in more meaningful and exciting ways.

In the comments, please share some of the books you love where setting stood out to you as a reader or a writer.

Or share some of your own adventure stories in setting, and how it’s shaping your story and characters in new ways.

Cynsational Notes

Kimberley on Kimberley:

Every time Kimberley Griffiths Little starts a new book project, she tends to make a lot of chocolate chip cookies—which don’t necessarily need baking to gobble up from the spoon . . .

She is the author of five novels for middle-grade readers. The Healing Spell (Scholastic) was chosen as a Bank Street College Best Books for 2011 and won The Whitney Award for the Best Youth Novel of 2010.

Her newest novel, Circle of Secrets, was recently released and two more novels are forthcoming from Scholastic.

Kimberley adores research trips, anything ancient and mystical - which will manifest itself in deliciously romantic ways in her recently sold YA trilogy to HarperCollins, pitched as the YA version of The Red Tent. Kimberley's thinking it might be time to switch to non-fat yogurt for her writing sessions.

Giveaway: Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

Enter to win Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Candlewick, 2011)! From the promotional copy:

The rhythm of the day’s activities creates the melody of the evening’s lullaby in this sweet song of family life along the banks of Lake Tanganyika. 

As the bright day shifts to twilight, the lantern on Baba’s boat twinkles in the distance, sending the baby off into a peaceful sleep on Mama’s shoulder.

Inspired by a visit to her son, his wife, and their child in Tanzania, Patricia MacLachlan writes a gentle story of an African family’s day from sunup to sundown.

Rich, beautifully detailed illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon offer a restful complement to the Swahili refrain "lala salama"--an invocation to "sleep well."

For sleepy little ones everywhere, Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan offers a lyrical Tanzanian lullaby that follows a loving family through their day.

View an inside spread.

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Lala Salma" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. 

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly says, "MacLachlan presents a vision of African life that's serene and safe, and the mother's voice lulls, reassures, and soothes-it's rich bedtime listening for the very young." See more reviews.

Patricia MacLachlan is the Newbery Medal-winning author of the much-loved Sarah, Plain and Tall (HarperCollins, 1985).

Lala Salama evolved from a time spent with her son John and his family in Tanzania, where John worked with Jane Goodall, and he and his wife worked on other conservation projects as well. Their daughter Ella was born in Tanzania. Patricia MacLachlan lives in Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Zunon is the illustrator of My Hands Sing the Blues, written by Jeanne Walker Harvey (Marshall Cavendish, 2011).

About Lala Salama, she says, "For me, the key to falling in love with a story is feeling a connection with the people and places native to the setting."

Born in New York State, she grew up on the Ivory Coast, West Africa, and now lives in upstate New York.

Cynsational Notes

"The Family I Call Mine" by Patricia MacLachlan, Graduation Appreciation Ceremony for MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults graduates at Hamline University. July 17, 2011. Introduction by Mary François Rockcastle. Part 1 of 2. Peek: "I talked too much. I stared out the window. I daydreamed. I started stories in class. I laughed inappropriately."

Part 2 of 2.

Monday, November 07, 2011

New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders

Lena Coakley is the first-time author of Witchlanders (Atheneum, 2011). From the promotional copy:

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?

But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. 

Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—

Are about him.

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

I was a big daydreamer as a kid, and books were my raw material; I devoured them like a furnace.

Before I went to bed at night, I liked to retell stories in my head, using the characters and situations I’d read about, but putting myself at the forefront of the story: I was the fifth Pevensie sibling in Narnia; I was Dorothy Gale’s best friend; I traveled around Middle Earth as Gandalf’s magical assistant. These stories were fantastically complicated and could go on night after night.

One of my favorite things to do was go on long car rides, because then I didn’t have to wait for bedtime, I could just stare out the window and dream stories. I was probably a pretty weird kid, come to think on it.

In a way, writing a novel is just my brilliant way of getting paid to do this. Of course, there is a huge difference between dreaming up a story and writing it down. Somehow, when it’s written, all these huge flaws and plot holes and inconsistencies begin to materialize—things that certainly weren’t there when the story was in my head!

My childhood may have been my apprenticeship as a storyteller, but I had to go through a whole other apprenticeship as a writer before I had a publishable novel on my hands.

I still think daydreaming is a crucial part of writing, though. In fact, Witchlanders started out as a daydream about two young men, opposites in every way, trapped together on a snowy mountaintop. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but I knew that neither of them could survive on their own, that they needed each other. For me, finding their story was a combination of my skills as a writer and my skills as a dreamer.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts? 

Although Witchlanders is a high fantasy, it tackles some very gritty, real-world issues. To be honest, if someone had told me when I began that I was writing a novel about religious conflict, drug addiction and war, I would have been terrified. What did I know about those things? But clearly these were all issues that my subconscious was gnawing on.

People often talk about fantasy as escapism, but I’ve never seen it that way. For me, fantasy novels have always been a place to see real-world issues from a different point of view.

The two main characters of the book, Ryder, a Witchlander, and Falpian, a Baen, are on opposite sides of a bitter cultural divide. If I had chosen to write a real-world story about such a conflict, everyone reading it would have a preconceived notion about each group, but no one picks up the book with a preconceived notion about what it means to be a Witchlander or a Baen, so I was able to play with people’s sympathies. I hope that sometimes the reader will see the Witchlander point of view and at other times, the Baen.

In the end I’d like them to come away with a feeling that both cultures are deeply beautiful and both cultures are deeply flawed. And couldn’t we all say that about most cultures, including our own?  

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto. 

Lena contributes news and interviews to Cynsations from the children's-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Canada.

Light Up the Library Online Auction: Bid to Win Agent/Author Critiques, Signed Books, Original Artwork, Gifts & More

Join in Jean Reidy's Light Up the Library online auction celebrating the release of her latest picture book Light Up the Night, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Hyperion, 2011) and benefiting the library at Musana Children's Home in Iganga, Uganda!

The auction will take place from Nov. 7 to Nov. 18. Highlights include:

Agent Critique: a critique of the first 50 pages of a middle grade/YA novel or five picture books by literary agent Erin Murphy;

Amazing Buffalo Combo Pack: (a) an author-signed copy of Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer + Bray, 2011); (b) a buffalo tote bag; (c) 30 buffalo bookmarks; (d) a author-and-illustator signed copy of the companion book Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? (Balzer + Bray, 2010); (e) a buffalo sketch;

Classroom/Library Dream Package: (a) two copies of Librarian on the Roof! A True Story by M.G. King, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Albert Whitman, 2010); (b) discussion guide; (c) Meet the Author--M.G. King--Skype Visit with Q&A for classroom/library; (d) critique of one student's nonfiction short story;

Picture Book Giveaway & Manuscript Critique: copy of This Tree Counts! by Alison Formento, illustrated by Sarah Snow (Albert Whitman, 2010) & a picture book manuscript critique by Alison.

Plus, a 30-page critique of a middle grade novel by Mindy Bartek, a picture book manuscript critique by Nancy Coffelt, a picture book critique and crescent moon earrings by Tara Lazar, Pick a Peck o' Picture Book Critiques from Liz Garton Scanlon, Tamara Ellis Smith, Laurie Thompson, Deborah Underwood and Audrey Vernick, five MG-YA critiques, five authors (Jeannie Mobley, Jennifer Nielsen, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Jeanne Ryan and L.B. Schulman), Critique of the Month Club (Jennifer Nielsen, Kristin Wolden Nitz, Jeanne Ryan, Peter Adam Salomon and Carrie Gordon Watson)...

items for baby, home, jewelry & inspiration, original artwork, and much more!


Cynsational Notes

Congratulations to Jean Reidy on the release of Light Up the Night, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Hyperion, 2011)! From the promotional copy: 

When it’s time to sleep, it’s nice to know there’s a place that’s safe.  In a cozy house, in a comfy bed, under a blanket that’s white and red under stars so bright they light up the night in your own little piece of the universe.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews cheers: "The coziest of quilts becomes a rocket ship in this gorgeous, mesmerizingly rhythmic read-aloud that explores a boy’s small place in a vast world ...A dreamy-yet-instructive ode to the universe." 

Don't miss the free downloadable curriculum/activity guide!

See also PiBoIdMo Day 4: Jean Reidy’s 5 Unusual Places to Find Inspiration from Tara Lazar at Picture Book Idea Month. Peek: "Listen carefully to your life. Do you hear the thump bump of your feet hitting the stairs each time you go up and down? Do you hear the crunch and shush of your shovel in crusty snow?"
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