Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guest Post: Cynthia Y. Levinson on Can You Really Ask That in a Children's Book?

Cynthia at the Texas Library Association conference

By Cynthia Y. Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

On September 15, 1963, 49 years ago today, three racist vigilantes—one of them nicknamed “Dynamite Bob” because of all the bombs he lobbed—blew up Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

For the previous six months, this church had been the headquarters for civil rights protests, which, in July, had finally forced the city to rescind its onerous Segregation Ordinances. 

The resulting blast killed four black girls and blinded another.

In my book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I describe these events through the voices and experiences of four young activists.

In explaining how I found—and cajoled the life-stories from—the “main characters” in my debut middle-grade nonfiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I’ve often said that I felt like a telephone insurance salesman or a door-to-door Ginzu knife pusher, making cold calls.

“Hello. My name is Cynthia Levinson, and have I got a deal for you! Just tell me every embarrassing detail about yourself, and, if I find a publisher, I’ll make you infamous.”

Why would any sane person, outside of reality TV, sign on to this crazy deal? Why would anyone agree to spill all to a novice writer in exchange for nothing, not even a vegetable peeler?

The four main interviewees—Audrey Faye Hendricks, Washington Booker III., Arnetta Streeter Gary, and James W. Stewart—would answer that they wanted young people today to know how they and over 3,000 other black children in Birmingham, Alabama had marched and gone to jail to desegregate what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most racially violent city in America.

I suspect that, when they agreed to talk with me, they had no idea how many of their secrets, some held for nearly 50 years, would be revealed in the telling.

In 2004, Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, published a collection of the interviews she conducted for the program in a book called All I Did Was Ask. Such a deceptively tongue-in-cheek title!

As Gross acknowledges in her Introduction, “I violate many rules of polite conversation in my interviews.” As an avid listener to Fresh Air, I can attest that she poses decidedly impolite inquiries but she does so deftly and effectively. As a result, her interviews often elicit, as she intends, “a revelation about my guest’s life.” Her techniques are all the more remarkable, given that her interviews last barely more than an hour.

If I replayed mine, on the other hand, end-to-end, they’d go on for days, possibly weeks. Unscrolled on pre-digital audiotape, they might stretch from Austin, where I live, to Birmingham. Unlike Terry Gross, I am an inefficient interviewer. One reason is that I wait. And, I wait. And, I wait.

During one of our early telephone conversations (I didn’t meet James until a year-and-a-half after we started talking), the volume and timbre of James’ voice suddenly dropped as he said, slowly and huskily, “The conditions in the jail were deplorable. Just. Deplorable.”

I could almost hear him shake his head as he recalled his astonishment and dismay at how he and the other teenaged prisoners were treated by the all-white Birmingham police force.

I waited for James to say more. But, my usually candid and eloquent interviewee seemed strangled. And, being a coward, as Gross admits she is, I choked up, too.

I couldn’t cough out the next obvious question and waited almost six months before I was ready to wind back to, “In what ways was the jail deplorable?” His responses were shocking.

But, like my eventual question, they were necessary to tell his story. “Deplorable” is an apt description but it is not a telling detail.

James’ explaining to me that his cell, which was built to accommodate 75 prisoners, was packed so tight with 300 to 400 young males that “we had to sleep in shifts [while] the rest stood around the walls” hits the reader between the eyes.

In researching and writing We’ve Got a Job, I knew that assertions require evidence, and statements beg for examples. The only way to uncover them, I learned, is to dig deep.

Cynthia and Wash
What, I wondered, for instance, did Wash Booker mean when he mentioned, over brunch at a pancake house, that he was a bad boy?

It meant, he told me when I finally asked, that “while everybody else was peacefully marching…we were more interested in hitting the policemen in the head with a rock.”

It meant, “burn anything the white folks owned.”

It meant, “Anything we could get our hands on owned by white folks, we destroyed it.”

All of which meant that, as a white writer, I also had to ask this man who was sharing so much with me that I had come to think of him as a friend, “Do you still hate white people?”

I flung many other tough questions from my arsenal. I had to ask Arnetta, a very decorous retired mathematics teacher, if she had lied to her parents about her activities in the civil rights movement. I had to ask Charles, a white interviewee, if his father ever stopped being a racist.

Above all, I had to ask myself: Why, as a teenager, like Arnetta, Wash, and James in 1963, did I timidly read articles in the newspapers about their courageous actions but never once considered joining them to protest segregation? Had I been prejudiced, too? Or, was I merely passive?

Does the difference between attitude and action (or, more accurately, inaction) matter? And, what residue of either of these remains within me? To what extent have I exorcised prejudice and inertia by writing We’ve Got a Job, thus fulfilling my new friends’ desire to share their stories with young people today?

Tough questions, apparently, begin at home. And, I often wondered, during the more than three years I obsessed about the book, about my own motivations and persistence.

In the end, I think it was not so much exorcism as trying to make amends.

Although my questions to others were, not infrequently, impertinent, they paid off in ways I didn’t anticipate not only for my readers but for me as well.

Gross observes that “When an interviewee clams up, it’s sometimes out of fear that the journalist he’s speaking with won’t fully comprehend what he’s saying or simply won’t care…[A] guest is more likely to share his innermost thoughts with someone he senses has a good grasp of what he’s all about.”

While several people got angry with me during our conversations, only a few people clammed up—because, they said, they plan to write books of their own. Certainly, Audrey, Arnetta, James, and Wash did not go silent. And, I would like to think that that’s in part because they know I comprehend, and I care.

As a result of what they shared with me, I learned much about their innermost thoughts—about the paramount place of God in their lives, for instance, about the spiritual basis of the Civil Rights Movement, about the values in their lives both before and after the desegregation that they brought about. James, in particular, patiently explained to me the nuances of racism that he still perceives today through careful listening and observation.

In a turn-about-is-fair-play move, I’ve also been interviewed since the book was published. Two radio program hosts, one black and the other white, in Grand Rapids, Michigan; asked me what I learned during this journey. In addition to the lessons I just mentioned, I also confessed that, thanks to the four, I now recognize that I have been in denial about the extent to which racism persists.

In my efforts to make amends, I’ve tried to remain not only attuned but also active in confronting prejudice and discrimination. It is in this way that my investigations have paid off in unanticipated ways—by changing me.

Fellow EMLA clients Jenny Ziegler, Chris Barton
I opened by raising the question of why anyone would want to be interviewed, especially when the interviews are probing, and the “victim” receives nothing in return.

Happily, Arnetta, Wash, and James have told me that, in fact, their innocently signing on to this project has benefited them, too. (Audrey died in 2009.)

Arnetta has had many conversations with her grandson about her involvement in the movement and encourages him to be an activist. (She also warns him not to lie to her the way she lied to his great-grandparents!) Wash is becoming a motivational presenter and public speaker about civil rights. And, James, who cried while talking about the jail at a presentation we made together to sixth-graders, is finding solace through sharing his stories.

I console myself with these outcomes not only for the time and anguish I extracted from the four of them but also because I’m doing it again. Stay tuned for news of my work in progress, for which I’m relentlessly interviewing young circus performers.

I wonder what they and I will learn about ourselves and how we will change from the process.

Cynsational Notes

New Voice: Cynthia Y. Levinson on We've Got a Job from Cynsations. Note: Cynthia talks about a transformative writing workshop and how she framed her research.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways


Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Michelle Knudsen on the elease of Big Mean Mike, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Candlewick, 2012). From the promotional copy:
Big Mean Mike is the biggest, toughest dog in the whole neighborhood. He has a big, mean car that he likes to drive around the big, mean streets. Everyone knows that Mike is big and mean, and that’s just the way he likes it.

But one day a tiny, fuzzy bunny shows up in his car. Mike can’t believe it! Before anyone can see, he puts the bunny down on the sidewalk and drives away.

When the tiny, fuzzy bunny shows up again — and this time brings a friend — Mike tells them both to get lost. Big mean dogs do not hang out with tiny, fuzzy bunnies!

But gosh, those bunnies sure are cute. . . .  A comical lesson about how keeping up your image is not nearly as fun as being your own quirky self.

Join Michelle at the launch party at 4 p.m. Sept. 15 at WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

More News & Giveaways

Do You Have a Writerly Support System? How Important Is It to Your Process? from Wastepaper Prose. Note: several YA authors chime in.

Romance by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: "We human beings are famously afraid of our own vulnerabilities, and we often get squicked out by our own desire to have someone hold us or show us we are cherished or tell us we are loved."

The Door to Acceptance by Kimberly Sabatini from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "The passage of moving from a writer to an author is never completely in your control. Do your best to grow your craft and always value your journey as much, if not more than, the prize of publication."

Character as Plot by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog. Peek: "The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears."

Impartial Observers by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction."

Separate, Not Equal by Coe Booth from CBC Diversity. Peek: "I can’t tell you how many libraries I’ve been to where my books are not even shelved in the mainstream YA section. They are relegated to the shelf labeled 'Street Lit' where the books about black people live."

Andrew Karre on Editing in the YA Boom Era by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "I believe the teenage population of the US crested at an all-time high sometime around 2007. I have no idea where I saw that number, but I know I saw it."

Process Talk: Kate Hosford's Fictional Uma and Infinity by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "Yes, children will be confounded by infinity, but no more so than the rest of us. Rather than ignore a topic like this for children, isn’t it better to simply explore it?"

MFA Programs: The Golden Ticket? by Mary Ann Rodman from Teaching Authors. Peek: "...my rejection letters all said the same thing...'you write really well but...' But what?  Nobody would tell me. My MFA program did."

Possibilities by Ginger Johnson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "Once upon a time, you stood on an empty stage. Space surrounded you: stage left, stage right, upstage, downstage. Just you and the space and the lights and possibility."

The Biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid It by Lisa Cron from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...writers tend to believe that the more lyrical the language, the more compelling the novel. Not so. In fact, lovely words that do not in some way move the story forward, stop it cold."

The Stephen King Guide to Marketing by Jason Kong from Jane Friedman. Peek: "...you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time."

Using Personal Issues to Enhance Fiction by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "From a psychological standpoint, there is often something healing in writing, and if you are continually finding the same theme on your page, that repetition compulsion (i.e. a repetitive re-enactment of a particular set of circumstances) may indicate something you (and your characters) need to work through before you’re going to be able to move on to something new."

Do You Have a Novel to Finish by Dec. 1? Sign up for JoNoWriMo+1.5 from Jo Knowles.

The Definition of Action by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "Action means something that has story consequences."

18 Questions to Ask Yourself about Gender Relations in Your Novel from Mette Ivie Harrison. Peek: "Who has the most power?"

Editor Interview: Heather Alexander, Dial Books/Penguin by L.B. Schulman from Emu's Debuts. Peek: "There isn’t a 'What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to Publish)' guide—although maybe there should be—so there is a lot of managing expectations, and explaining the process."

New Study: 55% of YA Books Bought by Adults from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Accounting for 28% of sales, these adults aren’t just purchasing for others -- when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78% of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading."

Beware What Your Say by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "...while you’re finding fault with his successes, you can guarantee his other friends aren’t. They’re happy for him and being supportive."

Cynsational Giveaways

Breaking News! Debbie Ridpath Ohi has added a hand-drawn doodle to the I'm Bored giveaway!

The winner of Beauty Shop for Rent by Laura Bowers was Susan in Virginia, and the winners of Just Flirt by Laura Bowers were Tal in Jerusalem, Jamie in Oregon and Melodie in Calgary.

The winner of three picture books (and one F&G) by Pat Mora has still not responded with an address; check your email!

This Week at Cynsations 

Cynsational Screening Room

Trent Reedy debuts a new author video program; read a Cynsations interview with Trent.




1000 Books for Hope: "...a book drive to collect 1000 good books for...five new libraries in Kenya, serving a dozen schools and thousands of readers eager for a few of your favorite books."



More Personally

Exciting news! Advanced reader copies of Feral Nights are in the house! I can't wait to show y'all the gorgeous cover art–the rockin' design team at Candlewick has really outdone itself!

Here's a shout out to Ramsey and all the students in Mrs. Steinberg's class at Seaford Middle School in Seaford, New York! I understand y'all are reading my debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). Don't miss the behind-the-scenes chapter insights in the sidebar here. Hope you enjoy Rain's story--holler if you have any questions!

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith and the rest of the authors (including Austin's own Shana Burg, Nikki Loftin, Jacqueline Kelly, Cynthia Levinson, Liz Garton Scanlon, Don Tate, and Philip Yates) to appear at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 in Austin!

Thanks to Zest Books for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week shout out! I think you're awesome, too!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be part of the mass reading of "Buried Treasure" at 2 p.m. at the O. Henry 150th Birthday Crawl Sept. 15 at the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas.

Join Newbery Honor author Marion Dane Bauer for a free live teleconference at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 19. She will also be offering a free live webinar on "Point of View in Fiction" at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 26. See more information.

Visit the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels

Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Voice: E. M. Kokie on Personal Effects

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

E. M. Kokie is the first-time author of Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

One letter: 876 miles.

Five days to find his brother's past and his own future.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, seventeen-year-old Matt Foster feels like he's been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad's lectures about following in his brother's footsteps. 

T.J.'s gone, and the worst part is, there's nothing left of him to hold on to. 

Matt can't shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on T.J.'s stuff from Iraq, he'd be able to make sense of his death. He wasn't expecting T.J.'s personal effects to raise even more questions about his life.

Now, even if it means pushing his dad over the edge…

even if it means losing his best friend…

even if it means getting expelled from school…

Matt will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about his brother's past.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research became extremely important for Personal Effects. I have no personal or familial experience with the military or with what it is like to have a loved one serving overseas, and especially not what happens after one of our service members is killed while serving. I had to research every aspect of enlistment, tours of duty, procedures after a service member is killed, etc.

I'm sort of an obsessive researcher, so I researched each aspect from several angles and avenues, using online and print resources, and even some personal accounts.

But there were two areas that were especially difficult to research: the details of notifying the family and assisting them post notification; and, the handling and delivery of the deceased service member's personal effects.

Once I started combing through research materials from the perspective of both surviving family members and the notification officers, I was able to feel fairly comfortable with the details I included about the first part. But I really struggled with feeling like there were many details I couldn't know about the delivery and handling of the personal effects. And I really wanted to get those details right.

I wanted to know that if someone who has been through the experience read my book, they would feel like I at least got the essence of the experience right and treated it with respect. And because so much of my writing really does come down to tactile details, there were all these small bits of the feel and appearance of the effects that I desperately wanted to know.

I got lucky early on, before I even signed with my agent, in that I connected online with someone who had worked at the personal effects depot who could help fill in some of my gaps. I was able to ask questions about how the effects would be processed, how they would be packed, what I should expect would definitely be included, and what would not.

But I still had huge holes in my understanding about what happened after they were processed – how did they get secured for shipment, how were they shipped and delivered, and when, and by whom, etc.

E.K. often writes at her dining room table.
My questions felt simultaneously too trivial to risk contacting those with firsthand experience (it's not the kind of thing you throw out on social media or hop into a forum and ask people to tell you about the tactile details of such a personal and emotional event), and yet these details also felt too important to ignore. I put out some feelers, asking if anyone knew anyone who might talk to me, but I struck out. But I wasn't ready to give up.

So, I researched as best I could, while I revised. Every few months I would run through my by-then-standard online searches, seeing if anything new would turn up. But I couldn't find what I was looking for. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized I might have been asking the wrong questions. I had been searching online using fairly sanitized search terms – deceased service member's personal effects, deceased soldier's personal effects, delivery of personal effects, etc. And I realized that anyone writing online about the subject would likely be doing so in a personal way – they would refer to the person specifically.

Once that inspiration struck, I found exactly what I was looking for after only a few search strings. I was able to connect with someone who had been present when a friend received his son's personal effects. "Son's personal effects" was the search string that lead to this amazingly generous person, who, with her friend's permission, shared with me some of the sensory details about the delivery and appearance of the personal effects, and even shared insights I didn't know to ask for.

It was an amazing, generous, affirming experience, which helped me get some key details right that I would have otherwise missed or had inaccurate. And it taught me a strong lesson in thinking about the point of view and motivations of potential sources of information when I am struggling to find tricky bits. I had to remember that the information is gathered, organized and expressed by people, with emotions and relationships that impact how they will gather, organize and express what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.

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

As a teen in Band.
I feel like Matt came to me fully formed but I had to revise to draw him out and get him organically on the page.

After years of being too afraid to try to write something original, or more accurately, finish something original, I made a pact with myself to write a novel. It didn't have to be good, and I didn't have to do anything with it, but I had to finish it.

I was doing free-writing exercises – sitting down and writing whatever came to mind – trying to decide what to write.

In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects. It was the first bit I wrote of Personal Effects, and for a long time it was the first chapter of the story.

I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office, waiting for his father and reliving and almost relishing the fight he had a few hours earlier. He was visceral, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. And I wanted to know why he was so angry. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft to find out.

Once I knew why Matt was so angry, I had to ask questions and make decisions about plot and pacing, etc. Matt came into sharper focus and became more confident in that anger in every draft. But he was there in that first exercise scene, hiding in plain sight.

Most of the secondary characters, including Shauna, took more deliberate choices, more questions about what would be reasonable for that character in that moment to feel and how he or she would react. And even though they started out as more deliberate characters, they also grew and changed through revision, sometimes in significant ways. Harley went through many versions of herself, for example, as the story required.

Matt is at times his own antagonist, but to the extent his father is his external antagonist, he may be the character I had to think about the most as the story came into focus through revision.

For so much of the writing of this book I was so sunk into Matt's point of view and perspective that I think at times even I didn't see things clearly, didn't see his father clearly. But in revision I would look at some of his father's actions, and reactions, and I could see that he wasn't quite the monster Matt believed him to be.

Don't get me wrong: he's not an ideal father by any stretch of the imagination, and Matt deserved better and more. But sometimes, in some moments, I realized Matt had no idea who his father was.

I looked for moments within Matt's limited and narrow point of view to (hopefully) show the reader some small insights into his father's character and perspective beyond Matt's fears and frustrations and pain.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

Chewbacca
I love to revise. That's where I feel the most joy in the process. But I hate first drafting. Hate. Despise. It's torture at times.

I try to motivate myself to draft through concentrating on getting to the revision stage. I also have found that having a regular critique group is a great motivator.

Knowing I have a crit group meeting coming up, and that I want to have something to submit, is just the right amount of pressure to get me out of my head enough to just write experimentally. To let the writing flow more freely. And that critique as I write helps me start making choices as the draft is forming, which is great for my confidence as I write, and often saves me time later on in the process by helping me identify missteps during the drafting.

Since selling Personal Effects, the added pressure of knowing someone else will read my work, and exactly who in my editor and agent, made drafting all the harder – it was nearly paralyzing for more than a year. I pushed along, writing when I could, backing out when a draft wasn't working and trying a different angle in, waiting for it all to feel loose and experimental again.

Once I had the start of a draft I felt was working, I started submitting to my critique group more regularly, and it quickly started to feel experimental again. That give and take of critique, knowing it's just a draft that I expect to revise, was what I needed to relax and draft more freely again.

Some writers don't feel comfortable showing a work in progress draft to anyone, but for me, an intimate and trusted critique group really helps me stay motivated and helps me focus as I write.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Chewbacca dressed as an Ewok, costume by E.K.
I think the key is figuring out how you write best. I tried sticking to a set schedule -- ie, two pages, or one hour, or 1,000 words, etc. every day, week, whatever. But I have found that for me, when the words are flowing I have to let myself sink in deep, and write whenever I can.

Before work, after work, after dinner, late into the evening if it's really going well. And I always end a section by writing myself some notes of what comes next so that when I sit down to write, I'm not coming to it cold.

When the words aren't flowing, I take breaks, read, research, play, revise a little...whatever I can do to stay limber while the story marinates, waiting for the next burst of words to come.

Knowing that inspiration can be unpredictable, I have tried to schedule work so I do have opportunities to write most days. I also don't over-schedule my weekends, knowing that if I am in a good writing head space, I might want to write for hours on end both weekend days.

Luckily, I have a partner who understands and supports my sunk-in times when I am glued to the computer and pretty much oblivious to the world around me.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Okay, remember I said I'm pretty much an obsessive researcher?

What's this in Chewbacca's bed?
I applied that obsessive research to figuring out how to find an agent, too. I researched every aspect of the process while I was revising Personal Effects and working on my query. I created spreadsheets and charts and lists of agents, and found out everything I could about those at the top of my ever-changing list.

Then once I had a fairly solid list to start querying, I stayed up to date by doing a little research every week to stay current, watch trends, see who was asking for what, and signing who, and with what results, meaning that I re-prioritized my query list based on what I was seeing.

And when I actually started querying, I queried slow, a few queries at a time over about ten months, until I was sure my query letter and partial were working well enough to get requests. Then I decided to query all out.

I updated and re-prioritized my list of agents in July/August 2009 with plans to start sending queries in batches of five-to-seven a week until I ran out of viable candidates.

In that first batch in August/September 2009, I decided on a whim to add a newer agent to my list. I was interested because while he was new, he seemed to be building his client list slowly and he had a really good ratio of sales to clients, for books I thought sounded interesting. He also had a great bio that talked about books the way I talk about books. Something in that bio just felt right.

His name is Chris Richman and he's with Upstart Crow Literary. When Chris offered me representation I was thrilled. I went through the process of notifying the other agents reading the manuscript, but I felt from our telephone call that Chris and I would be a good fit. We saw the book in similar ways, his ideas for revisions felt right, we had similar views for the agent-client relationship and my long term writing plans, etc.

I couldn't have asked for a better fit, and I often tell people that revising with Chris was like taking a course on pacing. His insights not only helped me strengthen Personal Effects, but they helped me better understand how to revise to improve pacing for future writing. So, I researched and queried for about a year, but all in all, I sent under 20 queries, signing with Chris in October 2009.

Learn about more debut authors!
As for advice for other writers, I also suggest they do their research. And that they do it themselves, instead of asking someone else to do it for them.

There is no magic in the process, but if you really put in the time to get to think about what you want and research potential agents, some bit of an interview or blog post or bio or even tweet might speak to you, might help you feel that this agent is the one for you. And you'll have a better shot of making an informed decisions if you can remember that it is a business relationship, and look for the quantitative data, too, like how many clients they have, how often they request manuscripts, what sales have they made in your market and genre, etc.

I also advise writers to eradicate the term "dream agent" from their vocabulary. People are always asking who are the "dream agents." Your dream agent will be different than someone else's dream agent. Do your research, and you improve your chances of making that connection.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Guest Post: & Giveaway Gigi Amateau on How Fire Changes Everything

By Gigi Amateau
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

While writing my first historical novel, Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel (Candlewick, 2012), I scoured primary and secondary sources for a self-guided crash-course on eighteenth-century blacksmithing.

Court documents at the Library of Virginia describe how my main character, Gabriel, used his blacksmith forge to ready the countryside for a slave insurrection. Testimony told how Gabriel and his brother, Solomon, turned scythes for cutting hay into double-edged swords for slitting men’s necks. In this way, the forge at Brookfield Plantation became the command center for Gabriel’s Rebellion during the summer of 1800.

In my research, old books and instructional videos brought the workings of the blacksmith forge to life. The hiss of the bellows keeping the fire hot. The clear strike of the anvil – an annunciation to the village that the smithy was open. The atmosphere of darkness-in-daytime to show the intensity of the fire and the true color of the ore. Stacks of old horse shoes and scrap iron piled up outside the forge for later repurposing.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century blacksmith logs showed the comings and goings of the men of Richmond. The forge was crucial to every business and domicile in the city.

An aide bringing in his Excellency’s horse for two new shoes. Doctor William Foushee – a member of the courts of oyer and terminer that tried Gabriel for hogstealing [sic] in 1799 and insurrection in 1800 – bringing his horse to be shod. And thousands and thousands of nails for the growing city.

Ball peen hammers
As much as these amazing sources taught me, understanding Gabriel’s trade seemed crucial to understanding Gabriel himself. What did it feel like to fire and bend iron? How did fire change this man in body, mind, and spirit?

In blacksmithing and metalwork classes, I used fire, clamps, an anvil, pliers, and a ball peen hammer to bend, twist, draw, upset, taper, and smooth iron and copper. I used water to set the changes.

Copper bangle bracelet
In the course of just twenty or so hours of classes at The Visual Arts Center here in Richmond, I burned myself a few times, misjudged my strike often, grew a big blister on my thumb, and watched callouses start to emerge on the pad of both palms. For most of those hours, I was slow and awkward with my hammer. Too tentative, then too hard.

The best job I finished was a bangle bracelet for my husband. Eventually, I found a steady rhythm; the metal accepted my strikes, sometimes with resistance and sometimes with surrender. I love how it feels to press a pencil against my middle finger, never releasing until the scene, the page, the story is done. I kept hammering, too, and watched how the fire changed what I thought could not change. How the water sealed the deal.

This idea that fledged out of hours forging – that fire and water transform together – became an anvil of sorts for drafting the story. My finished product from metalwork class – a strange-looking copper bracelet – mattered little because I learned something Gabriel knew well: Fire changes everything.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Gigi Amateau
Gigi Amateau is the author of Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel, a work of historical fiction for young adults (Candlewick, 2012), selected by SIBA as a Fall 2012 Okra Pick.

She also wrote the young adult novel, A Certain Strain of Peculiar (2009), a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year and Chancey of the Maury River (2008), a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate (2005) was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. All three of these novels were published by Candlewick.

She was born in northeastern Mississippi and raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia, just outside of Richmond. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Urban Studies and Planning, she worked for nearly twenty years in Richmond's non-profit community.

Gigi lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and daughter.

See also Author Interview: 20 Questions with Gigi Amateau from There's a Book.



Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau (Candlewick, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New Voice: Anne Marie Pace on Vampirina Ballerina

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Anne Marie Pace is the author of Vampirina Ballerina, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney-Hyperion, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Oh, to be a ballerina! It's a challenge for any little girl, but even more soif one happens to be a vampire like Vampirina.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I've been writing--sometimes intently, sometimes merely piddling--all my life, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my writing became more directed and more serious after I started connecting regularly with other writers, both online and in-person, about ten years ago.

As far as the online world goes, it's been a great gift to writers in recent years--at least from my perspective--that the internet has allowed us to associate in ways we could not have done in the past.

Among non-writers, I'm fairly shy, but as writers go, I'm pretty much an extrovert; and I know I'd be miserable working alone at home without being able to reach out to writer friends during the day.

As far back as the mid-'90s, my husband and I belonged to a now-defunct online-service called GEnie, which had writers' round tables. After GEnie went out of business, the children's writers formed a new listserv called WRT4KDZ. Throughout the years when my kids were young, I clung to WRT4KDZ as if it were a life raft; even though I was hardly writing at all, even when I didn't read the posts for weeks or even months, belonging to that group symbolized the knowledge that real people make a go of this writing gig.

Books don't just appear; people have to write them--and maybe I could write one, too.

As my children grew older, I was able to write more; simultaneously, social media was evolving, and my online community grew. I've been part of the Yellow Board, various genre-based listservs, and LiveJournal; and I've been a member of the Blueboards since the very first day; in fact, I spent about six years as one of the Blueboard administrators.

I also have a wonderful writers group online, the core of which are writers who met on the Blueboards. And of course, now we have Facebook and Twitter. The format may be different, but the intent is the same: forging connection, support and friendship.

Back row, left to right, Cassandra Whetstone, Sara Lewis Holmes, Anne Marie Pace, Alma Fullerton, DeAnn O'Toole, Loree Griffin Burns, Katy S. Duffield, Kristy Dempsey, Linda Urban, and in front Kathryn Erskine and Tanya Seale. From a Highlights Foundation/Boyds Mills retreat.

In person, I have to credit almost all my connections to SCBWI and the Highlights Foundation's Workshop at Chautauqua. Some of the members of the WRT4KDZ group I mentioned above encouraged me to join SCBWI.

As soon as I received the red roster (a book SCBWI used to send out with names and addresses of members), I started poring through it for local members to have coffee with (the introverts reading this are cringing, I know, but I needed writer friends).

My first regional conference, in 2002, I knew no one. The next year, I volunteered and began organizing local SCBWI events; and from there it snowballed. Now, ten years later, when I walk in the door at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, it's like coming home.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

Harry and Honey, Anne Marie's helpers
My early picture book manuscripts, like those by other beginning writers, were full of description, leaving little room for the illustrator's imagination.

In fact, one called "The Tutu Store" was all description; there was no character, no plot--just paragraph after paragraph of setting.

I was convinced it was brilliant; after all, it was poetic, with alliteration ("spangly sparkly sequined skirts") and onomatopoeia ("tappety-tap clicky-thump-clacky-thump tap shoes") and I could visualize the illustrations in my head. That was enough, right?

Of course I was completely off-base.

Then one night, I was working on one of those manuscripts before bed. While I slept, I guess my subconscious went to work, because in the morning, in that gray haze between sleeping and waking, an entirely new opening popped into my brain, one that was shorter, snappier, and full of repetition. It was a huge moment of change for me as I realized I was doing picture books all wrong.

At that point, I headed to the library to find books--not just to read to my kids, but to study. I think my former-English-major self kicked in here, because I started analyzing texts in terms of the functions of different elements. Okay, yes, picture book texts can be poetic, but what does that alliteration accomplish in a read-aloud? Why does onomatopoeia appeal to young children? And of course, how do you fully develop a character and tell her story in 500 words?

Vampirina launch party!
Five years ago, I began working with my agent Linda Pratt. Linda took me on for a novel we didn't sell, but she was interested in working with me on my picture books as well, and we've worked together over the years on a number of picture book manuscripts.

Linda represents many illustrators and author-illustrators and is tremendously keen at knowing what can and should be left out of picture-book text. I've been blessed to have her editorial tutelage over the years in that regard.

I also learned a lot from reading author-illustrators like Holly Keller, Pat Hutchins, and Kevin Henkes.

Picture book writers are sometimes given the advice not to study author-illustrators because a manuscript alone can't convey to a potential editor what the dummy of an author-illustrator will convey.

I think that's silly--be aware of that, yes, but don't shut out an entire category of wonderful books just because you yourself can't draw.

I know I'm a little biased, but I think you can tell from a book like Vampirina Ballerina, with LeUyen Pham's amazingly detailed, story-telling illustrations, what a talented illustrator can accomplish with a spare text.

Cynsational Notes

See the teachers' guide for Vampirina Ballerina.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Career Builder & Giveaway: Rita Williams-Garcia

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of several acclaimed novels for young adults: Blue Tights (1987), Every Time a Rainbow Dies (2001), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (1991), Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995), No Laughter Here (2004), and Jumped (2009).

Like Sisters on the Homefront was also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.

In addition, Rita's middle grade novel One Crazy Summer (2010) was recognized as a Coretta Scott King Book Award and a Newbery Honor Medal recipient, among many, many other honors.

She also has published a picture book, Catching the Waiyuuzee, and numerous short stories.

Rita is a faculty member in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Jamaica, New York.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I remember wanting to say so much in Blue Tights. I wanted to talk about all the repercussions of low self-esteem waiting to trap teenage girls.

I’d tell the emergent me to have faith in the true arc of the character. This debut novel won’t be my last story. Focus.

How do you define success?

I’ve defined success differently with each stage of my career, but I’m going to say the word no artist dare speaketh: money. I’ve had praise for my work and acknowledgement, but it’s when you can fully think in story, research, promote and write that you experience the grail of all writers: freedom.

I don’t worry if my forthcoming novel will find its audience or win any medals because its older sister has done all the hard work. The sibling novels can run about and simply be read.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

It’s been more of a desert with occasional cool springs along the way, only to find a sunny resort with a five-star chef, cabana boys offering umbrella drinks with dark rum at the other end of all that sand.

It took eight years to sell my first novel—two of those eight with agents before I went on my own.

Each novel received some praise, a few stars and have made lists, but it never occurred to me that I’d quit my job and try to write nearly full-time.

I think the reviewing community has always respected my work but that wasn’t enough to guarantee book sales, and honestly, I wasn’t too concerned with book sales at the time.

I just wanted to write what I thought were important, hard-to-tell stories.

 It wasn’t until I quit my job with health benefits that I had begun to think about writing a novel that might cast a wider reading net.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

I’ve always challenged myself to do something different in each novel, whether it was through taking on subject matter or trying a new craft approach. I’ve never written a sequel, let alone trilogy so I studied what it would entail and I’m now on book three of my One Crazy Summer trilogy.

I’ve never engaged my adventure/geek side, so I began another trilogy with a different voice, world and rules. It’s harder for me because I don’t lean on character in the same way and I’ve had to build everything from the games in the novel, the rules, the world’s history and the world itself.

I don’t like staying in the same place for too long, but I’m learning as a writer how to derive more from my initial story premises.

I’m known more for my language than anything else. I think the hardest thing is spending a lot of time doing something interesting with structure, character or paradox only to hear the same thing over and over: “It has a great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.”

Okay, that’s what my ears hear.

I’d love to grow as a picture book writer. I hear it’s a glutted market out there, but this doesn’t stop me from trying my hand at writing or selling them.

My current mission is a story set in Brazil to the beat of a samba tom-tom. Okay. You can say it. It has great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.” Actually, it is!

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

Kekla Magoon
Also recommended.
For me, the decision to write for younger readers, ages 9-12, changed my entire world. For one thing, I do more school and library visits.

I just happened to write about the Black Power Movement, a period that has received little coverage outside of Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and The River (Aladdin, 2009). It allowed educators to bring a different aspect of Civil Rights into the classroom.

The challenge was to write a novel with historical content but to not allow the Black Panthers to hijack the story from the central characters. There was so much research. So many historical comments to make, but I constantly cut away to stay within the heart and perceptions of character. Either I did it myself or my editor would ask me to do it later.

How have you built an audience over time?

Oh dear. You're looking at a marketing "don't." I fall short on the self-marketing side and that is a definite "don't" in this day and age. My audience has come, gone, and a new audience has sprung up.

It’s important to me to offer this new audience more of what attracted them to me in the first place, but to keep the stories unique. It does help to have three novels revolving around the same characters for the fans of the flagship book.

My school visits have brought the readers to me with their questions and their picks for what should happen next in my stories. I might not follow their suggestions, but my readers still have some impact on my choices. I learn what’s important to them and I’m hoping those readers will follow me down other paths.

I’m particularly aiming at boys as an audience for my next book, The Place of All Games. This would bring yet another new audience to my work.

How have your marketing strategies changed over the years? Could you tell us about one strategy that worked and why you think it was a boon to you?

Rita's first promotional brochure & fan letter
Marketing strategies, you say...

Uh...I’m playing catch-up. I’m really learning everything from writers and debut novelists hurling their books and presence out into the world. What did we do before book trailers, Twitter and Facebook?

I’ve engaged a team to tackle that for me with The Place of All Games. There will also be an app for one of my games! How cool is that? It paid to have worked with programmers in my other life.

 I’m definitely putting on my Lieutenant Uhura uniform and boots, and I’ll be taking my show to Comic-Con when my book comes out.

For PS Be Eleven, I’ll be putting together a trailer and leaving little PSBE notes on Facebook and Twitter. Giveaways will be involved.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

I was looking into training as a radiology technician just before One Crazy Summer went crazy. In spite of getting good reviews for Jumped, I had a hard time staying afloat.

When I told my editor I might be leaving children's books to find employment plus benefits, she kept saying, "Keep the faith." She had a real feeling about One Crazy Summer.

I had one foot planted in poverty and possible eviction when I learned the book had been named the Coretta Scott King (Author) Award winner and a Newbery Honor Medalist. That meant I’d get a royalty check, my teeth fixed, and I’d breathe.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature?

As a child, Rita wrote 500 words a night.
The readers have been incredible! It's great to have written a good book. Even better to have written one that readers love to read.

I've actually seen someone reading my book. It never gets old. I do the inner shriek, as not to scare them.

A player? I don't know about all of that, but I’ve been treated to some pretty savory dinners and lunches at conferences. I try to blurb emerging writers when I can.

I've felt more support and love from the writing community. There’s been a few cracks about the medals, but honestly, I have no say in those decisions. It was all a huge surprise.

There’s a video of me jumping around when I learned One Crazy Summer was named a National Book Award finalist. In spite of the buzz, I was shocked by it all. There are so many stellar books out there that don't get spotlight or sales. It's all very fickle. No one is guaranteed a thing.

And if someone thinks an award is a foregone conclusion because they've won previously or because they have good hair, they’ll only be disappointed.

I've had my time in the spotlight and I’m incredibly grateful. It saved me. It saved my writing career.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

Early draft of Blue Tights
I didn't get a degree in creative writing or take a lot of writing courses as an undergrad at Hofstra. With the exception of master classes I took with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer, it didn't occur to me to sit in a classroom and study writing. I just thought, "write every day and read really good books."

I didn't want to know about craft in academic terms. Instead I wanted to write and make my own discoveries about craft. All of that is all well and good, but geez. I wouldn't have eaten up so much time discovering "psychic distance" only to learn later that John Gardner had beaten me to it.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

My advice is hypocritical, but it is still good. Put at least one third of your energy into creating your online presence when your book comes out.

I know, I know. I shrink from blogging, I tweet modestly, and you won't catch me on radio. But do these things, anyway.

While you’re doing that, you should be deep in the throes of writing your next book. Write 40,000 good words every year. Always have a story going.

What do you want to say to established mid-list authors about staying in the game? 

I'll pass on what my editor said to me. It's always just at that point that you're ready to toss it all in that your breakthrough comes.

It helped me a lot to switch audiences and to write about a period that I remembered with fondness and passion.

What changes are you willing to make to be seen? How close is it to your passion?

What do you want to say to those who call themselves "one-book wonders" or those who otherwise feel the market has left them behind?

Stop watching the market and write a story that excites you. Isn’t that what you want to do in the first place—write a novel that’s impossible to put down? The market loves the market (books that all don the same jacket).

We’re back to passion, but tap into your passion and cultivate readers who share that passion. Who knows? The trend could be following you.

Of all of your books to date, which one are you the most proud of? Why?

I'm most proud of No Laughter Here, which is still available electronically. Even though this book won no medals and made no lists that I'm aware of, I still hear from readers who've needed this book.

I've heard from those who are awaiting extradition to their ritual-practicing countries and from those who’ve escaped to safer shores. They are holding onto No Laughter Here for comfort.

One Crazy Summer might have saved my career, but No Laughter Here has an incalculable reach. I'm glad to offer it.

Cynsational Notes

Find Rita at facebook and Rita at Twitter (@OneCrazyRita).

The Career Builders series offers insights from children's-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.



Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three paperback copies of Rita's One Crazy Summer. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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Sunday, September 09, 2012

New Voice & Giveaway: Debbie Ridpath Ohi on I'm Bored

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I'm Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). From the promotional copy:

There is nothing boring about being a kid, but one little girl is going to have to prove it in this anything-but-boring picture book from comedian Michael Ian Black.

Just when a little girl thinks she couldn’t possibly be more bored, she stumbles upon a potato who turns the tables on her by declaring that children are boring. 

But this girl isn’t going to let a vegetable tell her what’s what, so she sets out to show the unimpressed potato all the amazing things kids can do. Too bad the potato is anything but interested….

This tongue-in-cheek twist on a familiar topic is sure to entertain anyone who’s ever been bored—or had to hear about someone else being bored—and is filled with comedian Michael Ian Black’s trademark dry wit, accompanied by charismatic illustrations from newcomer Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an "ah-ha!" moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Photo by Jeff Ridpath
Without a doubt, the conference that changed everything for me was the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. I decided to submit one of my novels-in-progress for the manuscript critique consultation: a middle grade novel that had small illustrations imbedded throughout. Sadly, it was rejected because I had misread the critique rules.

Happily, rejection turned out to be a good thing. At that time, you could enter either the manuscript critique or the Portfolio Showcase, but not both.

An illustrator friend of mine, Beckett Gladney, suggested that I enter the Showcase and also helped me put my first portfolio together.

To my shock, I ended winning one of two Honor (runner-up) Awards for the overall showcase as well as being selected for the Mentorship Program, in which six industry experts each selected an artist whose portfolio showed promise.

The SCBWI Illustration Mentor who chose me was Cecilia Yung, who is Art Director at Penguin USA. I met with her as well as the five other Mentors (David Diaz, Rubin Pfeffer, Priscilla Burris, Pat Cummings, Bridget Strevens-Marzo). When we all met the following morning, we new Mentees were each asked to introduce ourselves and say what art training we had received.

When it was my turn, I had to confess that I had majored in Computer Science at the University Of Toronto and that I used to be a computer programmer/analyst.

Instead of looking down on me for my lack of art schooling, however, I've had tremendous support and encouragement from my Mentors as well as the other Mentees and have learned so much from all of them. I continue to be in touch with the other Mentees, and we launched our own website at KidLitArtists.com.

The conference was also significant because that's where Justin Chanda found me. Justin is the publisher at Simon &Schuster in charge of three imprints: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Atheneum & Margaret K. McElderry Books. During the conference, Justin told me about Michael Ian Black's book, and that he thought I'd be the perfect illustrator.

At Simon & Schuster: Debbie, Laurent Linn (art director), Justin Chanda (editor/publisher); photo by Dani Young
Justin's interest led to a book contract and then two more book contracts with Simon &Schuster. Working with Justin and Laurent Linn (S&S art director) has been a joy, and I have improved as both a writer and illustrator as a result. For those interested, I'm blogging about my experience working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.

Debbie tapes sketches and drawings to her ceiling so she can see them better.
But back to the "aha" factor.

I include the details above to help show how I came to certain realizations. They were particular to my situation, yes, but I list some of them below in case they help others out there:

  • Don't let rejections keep you down. Give yourself a day to feel sorry for yourself but then move on. If you let yourself get sucked into defeatist/negativity mode, then you may miss out on other opportunities.
  • Seek out and appreciate those who inspire and encourage you. I will always be grateful to my friend Beckett for nudging (okay, pushing) me to overcome my insecurities and try something completely new.
  • Don't give up. Keep working on your craft. Get out and meet other creative people.

As for getting my novels published, I haven't given up. Last year, I submitted a YA novel-in-progress for the SCBWI conference manuscript critique, was hugely encouraged by Jen Rofé's feedback, and my manuscript was nominated for the Sue Alexander "Most Promising Work" Award. It didn't win, but it was a sign to me that I should keep working on my novel projects in addition to picture books.


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 others interested in succeeding on this front?

I've been writing and drawing forever. I wrote my first chapter book when I was in second grade (see photo above). I recall being so excited about using a new word I had discovered in the dictionary: "horrendous." Sadly, I managed to misspell it in my story, and it got red-lined by my teacher.


Although I've had a number of short pieces published in print and online venues as well as a book, my only published writing credit for young people so far is the illustrated short story I did for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, a teen anthology edited by Holly Thompson and published by Stone Bridge Press.


My first writing mentor was Lee Wardlaw, a West Coast writer, and I learned a great deal from her critiquing. Nowadays, my main writing critique group is MiGWriters.

By Ruth Ohi (Annick Press)
In illustration, I've learned the most from my sister, Ruth Ohi. Ruth has over 50 books published, and her continuing support and encouragement have helped me so many times. More recently, I've gained much more knowledge about the craft and business of illustrating children's books from Laurent Linn, my art director at Simon & Schuster BFYR. And as I've mentioned earlier, the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program has been amazing for both advice and mutual encouragement.

The biggest piece of advice I can give those who write and illustrate: let your inner artist and writer out to play regularly, together as well as separately.

I do some web comics purely for the fun of it, plus I try to do a daily sketch. Some I post online, some I don't.

I think it's especially important for illustrators to do regular aimless doodling. Some people knit or do other needlework while they watch a movie or listen to music at home. I doodle. You never know what your subconscious is going to do or how it's going to express itself, and who knows? You may come up with a character idea or story fragment that could spark a project down the road.

Sample notes for one of the spreads
Final version.
 How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut illustrators and for those in the years to come?

My approach to promotion mainly focuses on connections I've made in the past as well as new connections. I'm hoping that some of the people who have been following me via my blogs or social media feeds or past projects will be intrigued enough to buy the book or help me promote it via word-of-mouth. I've never been a big fan of the hard sell, though I know it does work for some people.

To clarify: my approach won't work for everyone. I'm also not saying that this is the best approach -- for the book to sell really well, it needs to sell to total strangers who have no idea who I am. For me, though, the more personal approach feels the most natural and suits my personality.

I'm lucky in that I have publicists and a marketing team at Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Canada who are going to be helping promote I'm Bored, but I know there's a ton I can do on my own as well.

My advice for authors and illustrators who have a debut book:

  • Discover what works for you. Don't force it. You don't have to be on Twitter or Facebook or have a blog, if that type of venue makes you super-uncomfortable or you find them too much of a challenge. There are so many other ways to promote your book. Focus on your strengths and interests.
  • Also, think about what prompts you to buy a book. Make a list. Then go over the list and figure out which factors you can influence and which you can't.
  • I'm giving a presentation at the SCBWI Niagara Canada East conference in 2013 about Networking and Promotion For Introverts, for anyone interested.

As for whether I'm enjoying the process of promoting I'm Bored, the basic answer is: yes. I do admit that I enjoy some types of promotion more than others. I'm not as comfortable with live interviews as I am with written, for example, and still get nervous when I have to do any public speaking in front of large groups.

But I'm super-excited about I'm Bored and very happy with how it turned out, and that makes promotion so much more fun. Here are just a few of the ways I'm promoting I'm Bored:

  • Book launch! Scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept.18 at Type Books on Queen Street in Toronto. More details to be posted on the I'm Bored Facebook Page.
  • A song loosely based on the book, co-written with my friend Errol Elumir, and made into a music video (see below!).
  • Showing how I'm Bored was created in a process blog, with sketches and photos.
  • Comics about how I'm Bored was created: 



Dani Young (Editorial Assistant), Laurent Linn (Art Director), Justin Chanda (Editor & Publisher), Debbie
Photo credit: Navah Wolfe

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss the I'm Bored Bonus Pages, including teacher's guide and ready-to-print activity pages!

Greg Leitich Smith cheers I'm Bored: "With expressive illustrations and a hilarious point-counterpoint, a little girl demonstrates that children are less boring than potatoes.  And there are waterfowl, too.  Really."

Cynsations Canada reporter 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.

Witchlanders, her first novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and was the winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Americas region. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.


I'm Bored Music Video (inspired by the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR) from debsanderrol on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of I'm Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: international.

Breaking News! Debbie Ridpath Ohi has added a hand-drawn doodle to the I'm Bored giveaway! 

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