Saturday, September 07, 2013

Guest Post: Bethany Hegedus on Barn Raising: Creating a Center to Study & Celebrate the Craft of Writing

By Bethany Hegedus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Writing was my dream.

Always.

For 10+ years, I studied, took classes, attended SCBWI meetings, skimped and saved and sat behind reception desks in skyscraper Manhattan buildings.

When I wasn’t writing at the “day job,” I was squirreled away in various small Brooklyn hovels where I wrote and revised and revised and revised.

Once I got my masters from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I hoped to teach fiction but I needed to publish first. Eventually, miraculously, just when I thought my work would never reach anyone outside my writing group, I did publish.

In 2009, my first novel, Between Us Baxters (WestSide Books, 2009) came out, and when it did, my second novel, Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte/Random House, 2010) was already under contract.

I had a decision to make. Continue to eek out a living writing on the side or make a big move and try to make a-go of it as an almost-full-time writer.

I searched my soul, and came back with a big, bold answer. I loved my friends, but the NYC pace was getting to me. I was tired, I was lonely and I wanted more psychic space for both me and for my work.

Poof! Three weeks later I was living in Austin, Texas, and had the good luck to land a job at The Writers’ League of Texas. It was the perfect training ground for what I do now as the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn. At the WLT, I interacted with fellow professionals, who gave back to the thriving literary community. And as office manager, I listened to the needs of the writers who joined the organization.

March 2014
Two years into working at the WLT, I sold my third book—this one a picture book, Grandfather Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014)—which I’d been slaving over since hearing Arun Gandhi speak in the days after 9/11.

What I didn’t know after signing the contract, was that another big poof! was right around the corner—marriage and marriage to a man who had business in his blood.

As we courted, I discovered I had a bit of business in my blood too, and the empty horse barn at the back of our 7.5 acres, went from being planned as my designated office space to what is now The Writing Barn, a retreat, event, and workshop space in South Austin.

Best-selling author Sara Zarr, who taught with us in April, said, “A writer I like, Frederick Buechner, says that a personal calling is ‘where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ Most writers I know deeply hunger for a beautiful space and the quiet where they can connect with themselves, others, and their work. And I think Bethany must find her deep gladness in providing such a space.”

Sara Zarr signs The Writing Barn
Sara Zarr is not a sentimental writer, but what she wrote about the work we do at The Writing Barn, continues to get me all chocked up. The Writing Barn is my personal calling. (How Zarr knew that before I did, I’ll never know.)

It’s taken the sum total of those starving artist years and my WLT time supporting writers, my love for community, for books, and celebration and given it a home—a permanent place outside myself for it to live.

Seeing writers depart after classes and events, is a reminder to me to let our lives take us to places we never thought we’d go but maybe deep down hoped we could. Sara Zarr went on to add, “The Barn and surrounding property are aesthetically beautiful, but it’s Bethany’s heart and skill and the wonderful Austin writing community that bring it all together.”

That’s another plus. People are looking for a reason to come to Austin, to visit BookPeople, attend the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Teen Book Festival and the many other literary events in town. The Barn wouldn’t be the Barn without this eclectic and artistic “keeping-it-weird” community.

The Cabin
This coming January, will be the second anniversary of us flinging open our Barn doors.

As wonderful as the first two years have been, 2014 is going to be incredible.

We are expanding our on-site lodging for personal and group retreats, and we’re increasing our Advanced Writer Workshop programming and hope to even host five-to-seven-day intensives.

Currently, The Writing Barn and Cabin on the same property are listed as vacation destinations with TurnkeyVR.com and we welcome those traveling to Austin for festivals and music events.

But as much as we love hosting visitors to Austin, The Writing Barn is devoted first and foremost to honoring the craft and careers of those who build books. And build them bravely.

Houston area author, Varsha Bajaj, jokingly calls us “the watering hole for Texas authors” and in the drought stricken Texas that is a compliment, indeed.

Upcoming Events at The Writing Barn

See full events schedule.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Guest Post: Helen Hemphill on Writing Scenes & Showing

Authors Linda Sue Park & Helen Hemphill
By Helen Hemphill
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In my role as director of the Highlights Foundation’s Whole Novel Workshop, I read excerpts from lots of novels.

I read lots of telling, pages of narrative that tell the reader by filing in the background, describing the setting, and depicting what the narrator of the story thinks.

While some of this writing might include beautiful language and intriguing characters, pages and pages of telling just won’t hold the attention of a reader for very long.

For today’s teens, ‘tweens, and children, the "Once Upon a Time" approach can be a kind of big red flag for Been There, Heard That.

Great storytelling happens not in the telling but in the showing. But it feels so good to tell!

A few months ago I heard Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize award-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and his most recent novel Telegraph Avenue, say that he sometimes forgets and writes pages and pages of narrative. And that can be a good thing. It can help a writer understand the story and the characters.

What it cannot do, usually, is move the story along so that a reader will engage. The backbone of this kind of narrative writing is scene. Like a good screenplay, a novel must be constructed with scenes that build sequentially into something bigger and more meaningful.

What is a scene? In The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by American essayist and National Book Award finalist Sandra Schofield, a scene is defined as “… the most vivid and immediate part of the story, the place where the reader is the most emotionally involved, the part that leaves the reader with images and a memory of the action.”

In a scene, something has to happen. There needs to be action, usually dialog, and emotion. Something needs to change for good, for evil, in frustration, in anger, in love.

In a good scene, characters will be pushed to do the next thing that will move the story forward, that will be the logical outcome of the actions, dialog, thoughts, and feelings of the scene.

When I teach, I’m asked if a scene takes place in one location. It can. But it can also be a scene full of action. Think about when Byron goes after Larry Dunn for stealing Byron’s gloves in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 or Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby running down the street, revealing what they know about the lady in plum in The Peculiar.

In my own novel, Long Gone Daddy, the three main characters are in a station wagon on a road trip from Dallas to Las Vegas for 65 pages. I break up the monotony of the car trip with scenes that reveal plot points and show character emotion.

For example, in one scene the hitchhiker Warrior is told that the dead body of the protagonist’s grandfather is in the back of the station wagon. It’s a humorous moment on one level, and yet it also reveals Warrior’s laid-back grit, the religious zeal of the preacher father Paps, and the restlessness and angst of his protagonist son Harlan.

Another scene involves a religious discussion that quickly escalates into an anxiety attack for Harlan, again revealing both the emotional tie and distance between the generations.

I also use breaks from the station wagon as the travelers have a tire blow out, spend the night with friends, and stop for lunch.

The road trip is written in scenes, with narration used to move the reader through time and place. Here’s an example:

I waited for Paps to start up. About a million billboards and trailer parks went by. Paps flicked his thumb against his ear. Over and over and over. Eternity passed.

Finally, Paps spoke. “Warren, do you love your father?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” Warrior said. “But it’s not about love or hate, man. It’s acceptance. I try to accept him as he is and hope he can do the same for me someday.”

Paps glanced over at Warrior. “You are wrong, Warren. It is very much about love. If you father accepts you are you are, you will be lost forever. You soul will be damned for eternity. He cannot give up on you. Not if he really loves you.”

Warrior leaned over to Paps. “Maybe my dad would do a lot better to love me unconditionally.” Warrior’s voice was real low, and I had to lean forward to hear him. “You know, you can’t bully someone into believing, Reverend.”

It might as well have been the tribulation. I sucked air into my lungs hard. Paps wasn’t going to let Warrior talk to him like that. He would just pull the car over and tell Warrior to get out, thank you very much.

But Paps drove on in silence for a full five minutes. “Well, do no give up on God,” he said finally. “Or on your father, either.” Paps glanced back in the rear-view mirror and stared at me.

Karyn Henley, Cynthia Leitich Smith & Helen Hemphill
Location isn’t necessarily what makes a scene. It’s the tension. A scene begins with characters thinking one thing; it ends with a revelation or a reversal that lets them know something else.

In this scene from Long Gone Daddy, the action starts out as a discussion of the hitchhiker Warrior’s relationship to his own father, but ends with Paps sending a message to Harlan to not give up on their relationship. While the action takes place entirely in the station wagon, the scene gives the reader an emotional insight into the characters and shows the reader what’s at stake.


A scene can be a page or an entire chapter, but the length isn’t what’s important. What is important is that the reader feels emotion with the characters, just as if he or she were standing in the room with them. The reader sees the action of the storytelling.

So the goal is not to be a story teller but a story shower. Write a chain of dramatic scenes that build to a climax, and you’ve got the beginnings of a novel. Narrative telling is the part that links the scenes together, hints at backstory and setting, and fills in gaps of time.

Helen's office
Cynsational Notes

The paperback edition of Long Gone Daddy will be released in April 2014.

Helen says: "If you’re interested in knowing more about writing scenes, I’m lucky enough to be teaching a workshop, Building a Novel: Scene, Summary, and Sentence, with Newbery award-winning author Linda Sue Park (pictured above) at the Highlights Foundation from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. We’ll be working in-depth on constructing dramatic scenes, adding narrative summary, and then revising from the sentence up. Alvina Ling, executive editor for Little Brown Books for Young Readers, will be joining us."

Event Report: Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In August, I had the honor of co-teaching a Highlights Full Novel Workshop in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

Cabins in the woods at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop.
Traveling with fellow Austin author & teaching assistant Bethany Hegedus (layover in Detroit).
I prepare to say brainy things about story structure, world-building and metaphor.
Faculty author Greg Leitich Smith speaks (and sings!) about voice.
Special guest literary agent Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency & faculty author Nancy Werlin.
Teaching assistant & debut YA author Amy Rose Capetta & students chat with Kent Brown of Highlights.
Faculty literary agent Tina Wexler of ICM and Nancy.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The S-Word by Kathi Appelt from The Pippin Insider. Peek: "One February morning, while sitting at my desk and wondering how in the world I was going to meet my June 1st deadline for my next manuscript, I received an email from Cynthia Leitich Smith. It had only a single sentence: 'I think you should write something funny.' She signed it with love." See also Kathi on The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp from Indigo.

How Young Adult Literature Challenges Gender Norms by S.E. Smith from Thought Catalog. Peek: "...the people writing YA today are the people who were once furtively hiding from gym class in the library with their copies of The Mists of Avalon." Source: CBC Diversity.

Writers' Conferences: A Cheat Sheet by Sarah LaPolla from Glass Cases. Peek: "Meeting agents and editors is great, but the main reason to attend a conference is to learn." See also Query, Sign, Submit by Sarah from I Write for Apples.

Five Traits of Published Writers by Megan Shepherd from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "My published author friends work nonstop. They get up at 5 a.m. or else stay awake until 5am. They write on Christmas, during lunch breaks, while at their children’s soccer games."

Fiction Techniques for Nonfiction Writers by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "...while I was researching the nonfiction topic of Kentucky basketball, I was really looking for a certain type of information."

Why "Middle-Aged White Women" Writers Need to Care about Diversity, Too by Peni Griffin from Idea Garage Sale. Peek: "The point being that, even if you and your protagonists are from the privileged categories of people, the diversity issues are there. It doesn't harm your story or your chances in the market place to acknowledge them." See also "White Publishing" by Daniel Nayeri from CBC Diversity and Multicultural Statistics from CCBlogC.

Cause-Related Marketing by Kay Kendall from Mystery Writing is Murder. Peek: "Simply put, you as an author know what charitable causes have resonance with you. Find one that also relates to something in your book. Then promote the fact that you will donate a part of your royalties to that worthy cause."

Please Pants Responsibly: Paper Notebooks For the Win by E. Kristin Anderson from Write All the Words! Peek: "I have a different notebook for every novel I’ve finished (and even some that I haven’t). And when I get feedback on drafts, and do revisions, I can go and keep all of that information in the notebook, too." See also Five Quotes to Plot Your Novel by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes.

Teacher/Librarian Conferences: How to Make Positive Connections from Ashley Perez. Peek: "Authors, you are at a conference to increase your visibility and to connect with the readers who will put your books into the hands of more readers."

Sarah Harrison Smith, the new New York Times Book Review Editor, from Educating Alice. Peek: "Sarah is continuing the weekly online picture book reviews begun by her predecessor Pamela Paul, and paying close attention to titles from publishers small and large, near and far."

The Class of 2K14: Fiction Addiction: "20 authors debuting in middle grade and young adult fiction in 2014."

Top Four Lessons from Semester One of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults by Marissa Graff from Angela Ackerman at The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "We rarely give ourselves permission to play. At my advisor’s suggestion, I explored short stories as my out-of-the-box writing experiment during my first semester."

Uma Krishnaswami on Writing for the Long Haul from Janni Lee Simner from Desert Dispatches. Peek: "Early book contracts tend to give a writer hope, but they can also be, like the peacock’s tail, part illusion. When the folk tale market began to thin, and I was no closer to finishing my first novel, I was left questioning the whole endeavor."

A Is for Aging, B Is for Books from Lindsey McDivitt: "a blog about positive images of aging in children's literature." See also Disability in Kidlit: "reviews, guest posts and discussions about portrayals of disabilities in MG/YA fiction."

Writing Physical Attributes: Stocky by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "Stocky bodies tend to be short and round, rather than angular. People with these body types are often quite strong due to their higher percentage of muscle mass."

Being Responsible for Your Own Writing Career by Jenna Black from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "When I finally came to accept that I could work harder, and that working harder might actually be the key to getting published, everything changed for me."

Trendwatch 2013: A Mid-year Assessment by Elizabeth Bird from a Fuse #8 Production. Peek: "Contemporary Jewish characters where their religion is not the point."

Book Publishing's Big Gamble by Boris Kachka from The New York Times. On the Penguin-Random House Merger, peek: "There is, for one, the persistent gripe of writers and agents: companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript. That means not only lower advances, but also fewer options for writers to get the kind of painstaking attention — from editors, marketers and publicists — that it takes to turn their manuscripts into something valuable." See also Baker & Taylor Owner Buys Bookmasters by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly.

Children's Books in Iran: A Chat with Ali Seidabadi by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "...many recent books by American authors are translated and published in Iran. I have read numerous works written by today’s American writers. For example, last year I read two books by Brian Selznick, and you might find it interesting to know that his Hugo won a golden Flying Turtle award in Iran." See also Mitali on Children's Books for and about Syrian children.

Making Your Writing the Best It Can Be: Top Tips by Children's Book Editors from The Guardian. Peek: "People always say that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If that is true then by far the most important part is the end."

Understanding & Manipulating Time to Strengthen Your Novel by Meredith Davis from The Writing Barn. Peek: "When you give time markers, they don’t have to be a day, date, or time. The marker could be a holiday, a season, a school year, or some other specified event. What’s important is that it is intrinsically tied to your storyline."

Recommended Trans Title
Trans Titles for Young Adults by Tayla Sokoll from Linda Braun at Young Adult Library Service. Note: a bibliography of recommended reads.

How to Write a Satisfying Ending by Jane LeBack from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: "Your main character's chief flaws have to be highlighted and overcome in the climax. Moreover, the thing your main character has desired most from the beginning of the book must be brought to bear on the final resolution."

Children's Picture Books Retain Stubborn Stereotypes by Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard. Peek: "A new survey of children’s picture books finds gender stereotypes—nurturing mothers, breadwinning fathers—remain stubbornly persistent." Via Jen Robinson.

First Readers vs. Manuscript Critique by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "When you finish your draft, do you look for a manuscript critique or a first reader? They are different and serve different purposes."

Graphic Novels: What Are They and Why Should I Care? from Austin SCBWI. Note: Delve into the world of graphic novels on Oct. 5 with a Graphic Novel Workshop, featuring author/illustrator Dave Roman, author Cynthia Leitich Smith and First Second Books Senior Editor Calista Brill; sponsored by Austin SCBWI.

Character and Series Backstory and the Traditional Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder. Peek: "Many readers won’t put their finger on exactly what it was that made the story boring, but they’ll put it aside. No one really enjoys an expository dump of information—they just want an engaging story."

Banned Books Month: Dori Hillstestad Butler on How Censorship Changed Her from E. Kristin Anderson from Write All the Words! Peek: "...I never expected to face such a public challenge. I never expected to make ALA’s list of most challenged books. I never expected strangers to see a 3-minute segment on 'Fox and Friends' and think they know all about me and my motivation for writing such 'trash.'"

In Defense of Quiet Picture Books (Or Still Waters Run Deep) by Marsha Diane Arnold from The Picture Book Academy Blogettes. Peek: "Having recently sold a quiet picture book text, I pondered what made it different from my other rejected quiet stories. I came up with a list describing what the best quiet books do and what picture book writers should aim for."

From The SCBWI

"The SCBWI congratulates Edie Parsons of Athens, Georgia, as the winner of the first annual Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award for authors over the age of 50 who have not been traditionally published in the children’s literature field. Edie has written several children’s books and won the award for 'Mercury Sea,' a middle grade fantasy novel about the poetry of historical alchemy.

"The grant was established by Newbery Award winner and Newbery Honor Book recipient Karen Cushman and her husband, Philip Cushman, in conjunction with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Karen published her first children’s book, The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion)(winner of the 1996 Newbery Medal), at the age of 53 and has gone on to become one of the field’s most acclaimed novelists."

This Summer at Cynsations

More Personally

Hello, big bird!

Embracing my inner butterfly!
Rocking the Austin skyline before "A Chorus Line" at the Long Center.

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Staying Sane, Good Vibes and Author Platforms from Deborah Lytton at Adventures in Writing. Peek: "Pay attention but don't obsess. If you're losing followers in droves, you might want to take a look at your recent content and ask why. If you're not building steadily, you may want to amp things up a bit."

Congratulations to Anne Bustard on signing with Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt, and congratulations to Emily on signing Anne!

Congratulations to Amy Goldman Koss on receiving the 2013 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship! Peek: "...provides a writer with a measure of financial sustenance in order to make possible an extended period of time to complete a book-length work-in-progress. The fellowship is supported by an endowment fund established by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and confers a prize of $5,000 on the honoree."

Anna Boll Is Now Available for Hire to Write Curriculum Guides for Books from Creative Chaos. Peek: "When you provide teachers with a Teacher/Reader Guide, they are more likely to buy a class or reading group set of your book to go with it."

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