Friday, July 02, 2010

Agent Interview: Mary Kole of Andrea Brown Literary Agency

Mary Kole came to children's literature from a writer's perspective and got involved at Andrea Brown Literary Agency to see what it was like "on the other side of the desk." She quickly found her passion, and, after a year of working behind the scenes, officially joined the agency in August 2009.

In her quest to learn all sides of publishing, she has also worked in the children's editorial department at Chronicle Books and earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco.

At this time, Mary is only considering young adult and middle grade fiction and truly exceptional picture books from author-illustrators (art and text from one creator, not art or text separately). She prefers upmarket premises with literary spark and commercial appeal. Her favorite genres are light fantasy, paranormal, dystopian, thriller, horror, humor, contemporary, romance and mystery.

What led you to specialize in youth literature?

I love children's books because I love the audience. Kids read voraciously and socially -- they really do stay up all night with a flashlight under the covers, then pass around their favorite books to all their friends. They also read to form deep bonds with their favorite characters.

Great books for kids have the potential to make people into lifelong readers, and to give kids a friend, an outlet, a role model...quite simply, they change lives. I can't think of a better way to spend my days than working on books with such incredible potential.

What sort of work are you looking for--picture books, early readers, middle grade fiction, YA fiction, author-illustrators, memoir, graphic novels, creative nonfiction, children's-YA poetry, etc.? Realistic fiction, genre, multicultural, etc.?

I'm looking for MG and YA fiction in any genre, except for probably high fantasy or hard sci-fi (I define both as more focused on world-building than on character.

For example, Tolkien is high fantasy, to me, but Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008, Graphia, 2009) is character-driven and therefore exciting.

Other than that, I never want to close the door on a potentially amazing submission, so I will look at any genre. I keep a Manuscript Wish List in the sidebar of my blog,

Right now, I'd love to find a great dystopian YA and murder, horror, mystery, thriller or ghost stories for MG or YA.

In terms of picture books, I find myself especially drawn to author-illustrators, who can create both the art and the text (usually, the art is their first passion, then we refine the text). My picture book sensibility skews toward the quirky, funny and character-driven.

In any genre or for any age, it's all about fresh voice, literary spark, and upmarket commercial appeal.

More globally, what is your attitude/approach toward today's challenging economic market?

The market is challenging these days, but that just means that houses are being more selective and buying smarter. Tighter lists have made everyone raise their standards, from authors to agents to editors, and that's a great thing in the long run.

At Andrea Brown, we've been selling as many books as ever, if not more, throughout the downturn. As Andrea says: we don't believe in the recession, and we refuse to participate!

What "model" books would you suggest to prospective clients for study and why?

Runaway hits like Stephenie Meyer and Christopher Paolini are news for a reason--they're more rare than steak tartare.

The best career model that a writer can aspire to is, I think, a slow build. You get a modest advance for your first book, but that gives you a chance to meet or exceed your publisher's expectations. Then your financial rewards and your legions of readers grow as you progress.

You're more than just a flash in the pan, and your editors are excited to publish your books year after year because you generate consistent sales. That's a long-term career plan, for me. I always try to take the long view.

Of course, I wouldn't turn down a crazy blockbuster deal for one of my clients, but I think there needs to be a lot of emphasis on earning out (recouping your advance through book or subsidiary rights sales) and earning royalties--that's where you develop career stability and prove yourself.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent," one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

I'm definitely an editorial agent. Giving feedback and working on craft are my first loves. These days, a submission has to show up at an editor's desk wearing a suit and tie and holding roses. If the manuscript isn't as strong as it can possibly be, what's the point of submitting it?

I always want my authors to learn and grow as a result of our work together. One client calls me a "one-woman MFA program." I concentrate on publishing issues of course and always try to steer clients toward the most sophisticated and commercial ideas, but I place a heavy emphasis on the writing and storytelling, too.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript, or do you see yourself as a career builder? In either case, why?

Like I said, I take the long view and focus on career. The writers I want to work with are career-minded, too. I don't want someone who dabbles. I want someone who can't do anything else with their life beside creating children's books.

Agenting is all about return on investment. I don't want to spend the time on someone if they're not going to grow their career with me as I grow mine. And that involves brainstorming ideas for future projects together and honing in on the most viable premises, which I always try to do. Career coaching is definitely part of the job.

What do you see as the ingredients for a breakout book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

I always look for fantastic writing, voice, characterization, and structure. That said, I can't resist a hot premise. I know a good book premise when I read one because my imagination starts firing and I can't wait to read the story promised in the pitch. Possible scenes start flashing in my mind, characters come to life, conflict roils.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of beautiful novels that don't have a commercial premise, let alone a plot. I also see a lot of blockbuster book ideas that suffer from poor execution.

It really has to be a balance of the two elements--literary spark and commercial appeal--in today's world, since more and more publishers tend to look for breakout books. There's less room for the slow-cooked, literary coming of age story now, but I'll never turn one down if I think it will sell. That's the bottom line: an amazing story crafted by an expert storyteller will always find a home, regardless of trends or the marketplace.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

I'm very actively looking to build my list! Prospective clients can contact me by putting the word "query" into the subject line of an email message, then pasting their query letter and the first 10 pages of their book into the body of the email. Illustrators can send a link to an online portfolio of their work, and picture book authors can include the full text of their manuscript after their query. I only accept submissions via email, and you can find me at

I respond to all submissions (unless, of course, you didn't take the time to personalize your message to me) and look forward to hearing from you.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I love short queries that make me care about the character and story. You can easily do this by presenting me with a compelling character, telling me what they want, what the stakes are if they don't get it, and the obstacles in their way. If you're having trouble identifying these elements in your story, you're in trouble.

Unsuccessful queries go on for pages, read more like a plot synopsis than a pitch, and fail to touch an emotional nerve.

Describe your dream client.

I want a long-term career writer or author-illustrator who is savvy, personable, communicative, receptive to editorial suggestions, and who has done their homework and understands most elements of the publishing business.

They're easygoing and have realistic ideas about how the process works, and they're driven...they're usually busy coming up with ideas and have good writing habits.

Big turn offs for me are wildly unrealistic expectations, diva behavior, and lack of communication.

How much contact will you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, list servs?

I have a feeling I'll do retreats and workshops one day--that would be a dream.

In the meantime, though, I travel a lot so email communication is fast and easy. I always call with important news or to brainstorm, if the client needs me, but I really do prefer email. That said, everyone works differently, so I can tailor my communication style to the client, if need be.

Overall, I believe in transparency and always share submission lists, editor feedback, news, ideas, etc. I know that, often, the agent is a writer's main link to the sometimes-incomprehensible publishing industry. I take that responsibility very seriously and want clients to feel like they're in the loop.

What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

Other than relationships with great writers and potential clients, I love meeting published authors, librarians, booksellers, media professionals and other people involved in the book world. You never know when someone will need a conference speaker or want to put together a reading or promotion. I'm really looking forward to being in Brooklyn because I'll also get to deepen my relationships with editors and houses, too.

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work? In either case, what is your reasoning?

In children's books, I feel like creators can be more flexible. If they have great voice for MG and YA or for picture books and chapter books, for example, it's usually pretty easy to write across age categories.

I encourage writers to publish several books for one age range or in one genre to build a following and a reputation, but am very open to new opportunities for a client's talent. It's very much career-planning on a case-by-case basis.

[In the photo, baby Mary begins her publishing career.]

What do you consider the greatest challenges of being an agent?

The challenges of any new agent are building strong relationships with editors and houses, keeping up with or anticipating market needs and trends, and building a reputation for having great books. That's what makes or breaks a career, and I leap into my work every day wanting to learn and grow and be a great asset to my list.

I also wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't with a fantastic agency. Andrea Brown Lit has a great reputation, and my colleagues are a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.

What do you love about it?

Everything. Working editorially on manuscripts, speaking at conferences, meeting people, forming relationships, launching books into the world, multitasking, reading my eyes off, discovering talent...the list goes on!

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent/upcoming titles?

My first books won't hit shelves until 2011, but that doesn't make me any less excited about them! Bethanie Murguia is a debut author-illustrator who has a beautiful picture book about a heroic, mischievous bug, called Buglette, the Messy Sleeper, coming out from Tricycle Press.

That same summer, I have a really well-written, darkly funny, unusual YA urban fantasy coming out from Simon & Schuster. It's called Wildefire, about a girl who is a Polynesian volcano goddess, and is by the talented Karsten Knight.

I think both of these books will launch long careers for their authors.

Are you interested in speaking at writers' conferences? If so, how can event coordinators contact you?

I absolutely adore traveling, speaking, doing manuscript consultations, hearing pitches, teaching workshop and meeting writers across the country and, one day, I hope, the world.

I've recently started doing more events for the SCBWI and want to connect with more regional advisers, as well as conference organizers for any event that needs a children's book agent presence. I'm very actively building my list, so that's always a big draw for attendees. Organizers and regional advisers can connect with me at

I'm a huge fan of! What inspired you to become an agent-blogger?

When I knew I'd one day be an agent, I looked at my fantastic colleagues at ABLit and all the other rock-star agents at other agencies. How would great writers find me? What would set me apart? How could I drum up fantastic submissions and start building my list?

So I created the blog. It combines many of my passions--writing, teaching, and talking about craft and the publishing business. If you couldn't tell...I can go on about this stuff for quite a while. I wish I could meet and talk with more aspiring writers, one-on-one, but there aren't enough hours in a day. The blog is the next best thing to an intimate conversation.

What do you love about it? What are the challenges?

I feel like I have friends everywhere I go. Readers introduce themselves to me at every conference! I also love being challenged by my readers and challenging myself to really be articulate and helpful on the issues I discuss. The only challenge, of course, is the time commitment, but is one of the coolest things I've ever done.

So far, what are your favorite children's/YA books of 2010 and why?

I read a lot of books ahead of their publication schedule, so most of the books I love will be coming out Fall 2010.

Notable exceptions on shelves right now are Glimpse, a YA novel in verse by Carol Lynch Williams (Simon & Schuster 2010), and Beaver Is Lost, a picture book by Elisha Cooper (Random House, 2010).

Come fall, I highly recommend The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff (Penguin, 2010) and The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney (Little, Brown, 2010) for YA.

For middle grade, I loved The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Book 1) by Jacqueline West (Penguin, 2010) and the Guys Read: Funny Business anthology, edited by Jon Scieszka (HarperCollins, 2010).

In picture books, I absolutely adore The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown (Little, Brown, 2010). Check them out when you see them!

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I like to cook, hang out with my boyfriend and my cat, explore new restaurants, and, of course, write, since that's what got me into this whole crazy business in the first place.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old David Greenberg dreams of becoming a TV superstar like his idol, Jon Stewart. But in real life, David is just another kid terrified of starting his first year at Harman Middle School. With a wacky sense of humor and hilarious Top 6½ Lists, David spends his free time making Talk Time videos, which he posts on YouTube. But before he can get famous, he has to figure out a way to deal with:

6. Middle school (much scarier than it sounds!)

5. His best friend gone girl-crazy

4. A runaway mom who has no phone!

3. The threat of a swirlie on his birthday

2. A terrifying cousin

1. His # 1 fan, Bubbe (his Jewish grandmother)

1/2. Did we mention Hammy, the hamster who’s determined to break David’s heart?

When David and his best friend have a fight, David is lucky enough to make a pretty cool new friend, Sophie–who just (gulp) happens to be a girl. Sophie thinks David’s videos are hilarious, and she starts sending out the links to everyone she knows. Sophie’s friends tell their friends, and before David knows it, thousands of people are viewing his videos–including some of the last people he would have expected.
David may still feel like a real-life schmo, but is he ready to become an Internet superstar?

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "How to Survive Middle School" in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up; I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST July 31. Note: U.S. entries only.

The winner of a paperback copy of Swim the Fly by Don Calame (Candlewick, 2010) was Megan in Maine! Thanks to all who entered, and to Candlewick Press for sponsoring the giveaway.

More News

Congratulations to Mari Mancusi on the paperback release of Gamer Girl (Speak, 2010)! From the promotional copy: "Maddy's life couldn't get much worse. Her parents split and now she's stuck in a small town and at a new school. Most of the time, she retreats into her manga art, but when she gets into the Fields of Fantasy online computer game, she knows she's found the one place she can be herself. In the game world, Maddy can be the beautiful and magical Allora and have a virtually perfect life. And she even finds a little romance. But can Maddy escape her real-life problems altogether, or will she have to find a way to make her real world just as amazing as her virtual one?" Don't miss a guest post by Mari on Kids Don't Read Like They Used To, and That's a Good Thing.

How to Make a Literary Life: Charming Notes from Kimberley Griffiths Little from Kimberly's Wanderings. Inspired by Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers by Carolyn See (Random House, 2002). Peek: "Are you sometimes secretly afraid that you're merely an ordinary Joe/Jane and all of your favorite authors who are up on that pedestal of perfect sentences just look coolly down their noses at all of us? Not so! You too can be a part of the literary scene and the book world—even if you’re just a beginner, have no credits to your name, and are still struggling with a cohesive plot, let alone able to master gorgeously crafted prose." Read a Cynsations interview with Kimberley.

The Rule of Twenty by Michael Stearns from Upstart Crow Literary. Peek: "Bruce [Coville] mentioned something he called “The Rule of Twenty.” He doesn’t recall where he picked it up—a business article? a self-help book? a primer on original thinking?—but wherever it came from, I have since relied on it and relied on it often." Source: Nathan Bransford.

Goals Make Dreams Reality by Danyelle Leafty from Peek: "I've found that having a goal to be published by one of the bigger houses and possibly make NYT Bestsellerdom changes the way I look at writing."

Books With Gay Themes for Young Readers Take Off by the Associated Press from The New York Times. Peek: "'Landing as high on the New York Times list as we did with Will Grayson, Will Grayson made a big statement to the children's publishing world that gay characters are not a commercial liability,' [John] Green said. ''This is an important statement to make.'"

Children’s Author Jane Sutton: official author site, child-oriented site features info on books, school visits, biography, photos. Sutton’s books include What Should a Hippo Wear (Houghton Mifflin, 1979), Me and the Weirdos (Houghton, 1981), Confessions of an Orange Octopus (Dutton, 1983), Not Even Mrs. Mazurksy (Dutton, 1984), Definitely Not Sexy (Little, Brown, 1988), The Trouble with Cauliflower (Dial, 2006), Don't Call Me Sidney (Dial, 2010).

Agent Interview: Jill Cocoran of the Herman Agency by Alice Pope from Alice Pople's SCBWI Children's Market Blog. Peek: "Regarding websites, I think websites are a must for unpublished and published illustrators. If I hear of you, I want to click and see your work immediately, while your name is still in my mind. So do editors and art directors."

Does Branding Make Sense? by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violent Promotions. Peek: "I am willing to bet there is some hidden core there that links all your stories to you. There is the nugget of your brand. Here are some questions to get you thinking about that."

The Evolving Voice of the Young Adult Novel by Swati Avasthi from A View from the Loft. Peek: "Voice is the circulatory system of a YA novel: it streams from one vital organ to the next, gives us the novel’s pulse, and brings oxygen and life to otherwise sluggish words. Without voice, the energy is drained; with it, anything is possible." Source: Gwenda Bond. Read a Cynsations interview with Swati.

The Care and Feeding of Young Library Patrons by Wendy S. from From the Mixed-up Files of Middle Grade Authors. Peek: "I expect the demand for e-books among middle-graders to go up. We are seeing more holds showing up in our system for e-books all the time. The advantage to us is that e-books take up no shelf space. It’s an interesting time." Source: Molly O'Neil.

The June 2010 Carnival of Children's Literature by Lee Wind from I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?

Rainbow Books 2010: a bibliography of picture books as well as fiction and nonfiction for older children and teens from ALA Rainbow Project. Peek: "The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table and the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association have released the 2010 Rainbow Project Bibliography of recommended titles for youth from birth to age 18 that contain significant and authentic gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (GLBTQ) content." See also Exploring Diversity: Themes & Communities for additional related bibliographies.

Cynsational Writer Tip: books and ARCs given away at conferences are not "free;" they were paid for by the publisher and represent some percentage of the promotional budget allocated an author whose marketing support is likely quite limited. Please make every effort to spread the word about the titles you pick up and/or pass them along to a teacher/librarian.

Coffee Break with Carol Lynch Williams by Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: "I guess I would have to say my daughters have never lost faith in me as a writer. During every tough review, every rejection, every place I got stuck in my writing, my daughters--all five of them--have believed in me." Read a Cynsations interview with Carol.

Reviews by Meg Cabot. Peek: "If I still listened to reviews, not only would I have driven a stake through my own heart a long time ago, I’d have missed out on some of my favorite movies of all time!" Source: Author2Author.

Born to Be Wild: Libba Bray by Betty Carter from School Library Journal. Peek: "There’s an awful lot of pressure on kids these days and a lot of life they have to figure out themselves. Certainly one of the valuable experiences of my life was living through a horrible disfiguring car accident because no one could protect me from that. Parents can’t make everything right. That’s not the way life is. The true measure of a person is being able to get back up." Source: Jo Knowles. Read a Cynsations interview with Libba.

Cutting Characters You Love by Anna Staniszewski from Vision A Resource for Writers. Peek: " can be hard to step back and realize that your characters need to be cut. Here are a few scenarios to look out for...."

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little (Scholastic, 2010). See teacher's guide (PDF). Read a Cynsations interview with Kimberley.

Get to know Mitali Perkins, author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including the newly released Bamboo People (Charlesbridge, 2010)(discussion guide (PDF)(author interview). From the promotional copy:

Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family's home and bamboo fields. Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion as each boy is changed by unlikely friendships formed under extreme circumstances.

This coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two fifteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.

More Personally

Thank you to host librarian Mary Ann Tsosie and all those who attended one of my workshops and/or lecture this weekend at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque! Note: "The Summer Sunset lecture series is co-sponsored by University Libraries and the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs." Here's a peek inside UNM:

Highlights of the trip included a visit to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (especially the exhibit, "Celebrating Native Legacies: Works in Clay by Kathleen Wall") and seeing New Mexico youth lit authors Alexandra Diaz and Carolee Dean.

As much fun as I've had of late, traveling and visiting book lovers from around the country, I'm pleased to say that I'll be home for the next several months, working hard on the Eternal graphic novel and a new prose novel that will be set in the same universe.

My best takeaway insight, having sampled much of what the U.S. airlines industry has to offer is: fly Southwest!

Beyond that, Austin is in Central Texas, so we're in no danger from Hurricane Alex. But we are seeing our share of rain and rainbows. This shot was taken from West Seventh Street.

CynthiaLeitichSmith's Channel at YouTube is now online. At this point, I'm just getting to know the system and adding favorites for your viewing pleasure--so far, my official book trailers and several by readers. Note: once I get a chance, I'll add the trailers of some of my own favorite reads.

See also Greg's report on last weekend's annual Writers' League of Texas Agents Conference.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Co-Authors Interview: Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter on Reading and Writing

Spilling Ink: A Young Writers Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Flashpoint, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Learn how to write like the experts, from the experts.

Practical advice in a perfect package for young aspiring writers. After receiving letters from fans asking for writing advice, accomplished authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter joined together to create this guidebook for young writers.

The authors mix inspirational anecdotes with practical guidance on how to find a voice, develop characters and plot,
make revisions, and overcome writer’s block.

Fun writing prompts will help young writers jump-start their own projects, and encouragement throughout will keep them at work.

Author of The Salmander Room (Dragonfly, 1994), The Sister Magic series, illustrated by Bill Brown (Scholastic) and the bestselling Abby Hayes series (Scholastic), Anne Mazer lives in Ithaca, New York.

Ellen Potter, author of the award-winning Olivia Kidney series, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, Pish Posh (Philomel, 2006), and Slob (Philomel, 2009), lives in upstate New York.

See also The Official Site of Spilling Ink - The Book! which includes additional information, a creativity blog, discussion board, teacher kit, section for kids, and much more.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Ellen: My mother likes to tell this story: One time, when I was eight or so, she had to pick me up from school in the middle of the day. I was in an experimental classroom at the time. The experiment wasn’t going so well. Kids were throwing sneakers at each other and playing “How loud can you scream before the teacher starts to cry.”

My mother walked into the class and couldn’t find me anywhere. It took some searching before she discovered me curled up under a desk, engrossed in a book. Perfectly happy.

If there was a bloody revolution happening all around me (and there was), I was blissfully unaware of it. Books had that power for me. They still do.

Anne: I was an omnivorous, voracious, hungry reader.

Anything in print appealed to me. That included books of all kinds (fairy tales, adventures, humor, historical fiction, fantasy, sci fi, mysteries, poetry, non-fiction, series, westerns, etc.), as well as encyclopedias, dictionaries, cereal boxes, Archie and Superman comic books, and Mad Magazine. There's almost no way to convey how important reading was to me as a child. I was hooked on stories from birth.

How did your family encourage reading?

Ellen: I come from a family of readers and writers. Books were a priority. We were allowed to stay up late as long as we were reading, and my parents often took us to the library or used bookstores to replenish our supply.

My mother used to read to us, too, even when we were perfectly capable of reading to ourselves. We loved it! She read us books that she liked herself. She often read us books by Donald E. Westlake, who wrote these great humorous crime novels about botched bank robberies or jewelry thefts.

Anne: Speaking of birth, I like to think that I was born with a tiny leather-bound book in my hand. That was because I was born into a book-loving family. (My parents also became writers when I was five years old, but that's another story.)

Reading was a highly approved activity in the Mazer family. No one ever questioned my spending an entire day on the floor of my room reading book after book. Even when I finally staggered into the light, unable to remember my name, no one ever said, "You might want to cut down on the reading."

We also haunted libraries--some of them were really spooky! One memorable library in the Adirondacks was a small, musty room at the top of a deserted building. It was crammed with books stacked everywhere. There was no librarian or card catalog or even many book shelves. There were just books and dust. We wandered the room around picking up the volumes we wanted to read on our vacation. Then we took them to our cabin. When we were finished, we went back to the library and put them down anywhere.

I also loved the marble staircase of the downtown Syracuse Public Library. The stairs were worn in the middle, and I always had a kind of mystical feeling as I ascended toward the stacks. I saw myself as one of millions of people in a long stream of time, climbing toward books and knowledge. It felt good to be seeking out books in the library.

What is your most memorable reading experience?

Ellen: I had this epiphany when I was reading Harriet the Spy [by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964)]. I suddenly knew that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds. How wonderful! I was eleven!

But how awful too, since I would be turning twelve soon, then thirteen, and then, gaaak! I’d be an adult before long. So I vowed that if I couldn’t always be eleven, I could at least write books for people who were eleven.

All because of Harriet the Spy.

Anne: Well, there's the Sherlock Holmes pea soup story which I recount in Spilling Ink. Let me just say that it involves a bowl of slowly congealing, thick gloppy pea soup which I had been ordered to finish--and the Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), which I was reading to distract me from the pea soup.

I wasn't sure which was more horrifying--the slavering jaws of the terrifying hound or my mother's pea soup. To this day, whenever anyone mentions the Hound of the Baskervilles, I taste pea soup.

And then there was the time in tenth grade Biology class that I was reading a book that I had cleverly concealed behind my textbook. I thought I was getting away with it until the teacher swooped down on me. He reached inside and confiscated my book. The next thing I knew my book was flying out the second floor window. It landed in the snow, where I retrieved it later. (My teacher obviously had not grown up in a family where Reading Was Always Okay.)

How did reading shape you as a writer?

Ellen: Reading is the reason that I write. Certain books have left their fingerprint on my soul. Just that fact alone fires me up to write every day.

Anne: I wouldn't be a writer if I wasn't a reader. Books were such powerful magic for me as a kid that I wanted to create it for others when I got older. I also learned how to write from reading. Might I mention that I never took a single writing class?

Yes, I grew up with writer parents. But they didn't teach me how to write; they taught me the habits a writer needs, such as: "Write every day. Don't give up. It takes a long, long time."

They didn't teach me how to develop a character, for example, or how to write something funny. I discovered all these things on my own--and with the help of many, many other writers.

Every book that I've ever read and loved has been my teacher. Writing involves a lot of struggle. No one else can do it for you. But with so many shining examples before you, why not try?

Has becoming a writer changed the way you read?

Ellen (circles): It’s a case of mixing business with pleasure.

When I read, part of my brain is trying to untangle the author’s style and analyzing the storyline. A book has to be unbelievably great in order for me to forget that I’m a writer and simply be a reader.

Anne (stripes): I'm still the same awestruck, story-besotted reader I was as a little girl.

When I pick up a book, the world disappears. That has never changed. Sometimes I wish I could analyze what I'm reading while I'm reading it, but I always get lost in the story.

The books I love get me excited about writing. They open up new possibilities and ways of thinking about my characters and stories. Bad books sometimes inspire me, as well. A pinch of anger can get me writing, too!

Any advice for aspiring writers on the relationship between reading and writing?

Ellen: Read widely and recklessly. Parse out what works and why. Then, when you sit down to write, push all that stuff to one corner of your brain and let your own voice lead the way.

Anne: Not every writer is a reader first. (I can think of several reluctant readers who became successful writers.) But for an aspiring writer, reading is the single most important thing you can do. It will help develop an ear for language, a nose for a story, a eye for details, and a taste for ideas.

But please don't read because you "should!" Do it for fun, for knowledge, for pleasure and curiosity. Reading can lead you naturally to writing... and reading what you love will lead you to writing what you love.

Cynsational Notes

Matt Phelan illustrated the 2007 Newbery Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2006). He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Voice: Dia Reeves on Bleeding Violet

Dia Reeves is the first-time author of Bleeding Violet (Simon Pulse, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Love can be a dangerous thing….

Hanna simply wants to be loved. With a head plagued by hallucinations, a medicine cabinet full of pills, and a closet stuffed with frilly, violet dresses, Hanna’s tired of being the outcast, the weird girl, the freak. So she runs away to Portero, Texas in search of a new home.

But Portero is a stranger town than Hanna expects. As she tries to make a place for herself, she discovers dark secrets that would terrify any normal soul.

Good thing for Hanna, she’s far from normal. As this crazy girl meets an even crazier town, only two things are certain: Anything can happen and no one is safe.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach "edgy" behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Before I ever sat down to write Bleeding Violet, I knew that the main character hallucinated, but I didn't know what mental illness caused hallucinations, and so I had to do some research.

When I discovered that people with bipolar can hallucinate (especially during manic episodes), that's the illness I went with. It was the illness itself that shaped most of Hanna's personality: recklessness, impaired judgment, hypersexuality, delusions, and thoughts of suicide.

I know a lot of people are offended by Hanna's behavior and don't feel that she's an appropriate role model or simply can't relate to her because her experiences and point of view are so out of the norm.

When I wrote her character, I never intended that Hanna should be the guiding example of what a teenager should be. I'm not interested in writing about saintly paragons of virtue, nor am I interested in writing about "normal" teenagers. I prefer abnormal teenagers, the ones on the fringe, the ones who don't think or operate the way "normal" people do.

That's why I had so much fun writing Bleeding Violet; with Hanna being an unusual type of character (certainly an underrepresented character), what built up around her was, correspondingly, an unusual story.

I wish everyone could experience the creative freedom that comes with upsetting the status quo; there are no words for it.

As a paranormal writer, how did you go about building your world?

I knew I wanted to write about East Texas; there's something romantic and fairytale-ish about huge forests.

Also, when people think of Texas, they tend to imagine flat, dusty plains and tumbleweeds. I wanted people to know that the geography of Texas is much more varied than that.

But what gives the imaginary town of Portero its otherwordly vibe is less the town itself but rather its townspeople: their matter-of-fact outlook on death, how they value bravery above almost anything else, their high tolerance for weirdness.

Porterenes have their own rituals and styles of dress and modes of behavior all centered around the fact that they live side by side with monsters. So the world building grew out of character; for me, characters inform everything.

Cynsational Notes

Dia Reeves is a librarian and lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Her family, however, hails from East Texas. Bleeding Violet is her first novel.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Guest Post: Simone Elkeles on Book Trailers

By Simone Elkeles

My first two book trailers were simple – they had music and words and pictures. For Perfect Chemistry (Walker, 2008), I wanted to do something totally different and unique. I wanted the book trailer to stand out.

Then I thought about the television show "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I loved the rap that Will Smith did in the beginning. I thought it would be hilarious to do a parody rap video as the book trailer.

I hired a director, and we actually held auditions with actors to do the rap. It was super fun to help write the rap (the most inappropriate parts are mostly written by me, I’m sorry to say) and to be there for the taping. I loved doing it.

Some fans hate the rap (they might not get that it’s a parody), and some think it’s hilarious and have downloaded it to their iPods. It definitely got attention!

For Rules of Attraction (Walker, 2010), I wanted to take my book trailer to the next level. I wanted my book trailer to look exactly like a real movie trailer – with actors acting out snippets of scenes from my book.

I called Pete Jones, a friend and writer/director whose screenplay "Hall Pass" is currently being filmed with Owen Wilson and Bill Murray and being directed by the Farrelly Brothers. I told Pete I wanted him to direct a “movie trailer/book trailer,” and he said he’d do it.

Pete hooked me up with producer Pat Peach and Ron Rothstein with Spotlight Films in California, who did an amazing job of auditioning actors, scouting locations, helping me write the script, editing the trailer…they did it all and more!

Each audition was emailed to me, so I was a part of the audition process even though I live in Chicago.

After hiring actor Giancarlo Vidrio to play the lead high school bad boy Carlos Fuentes (I knew my fans would love him) and Catesby Bernstein to play the lead heroine Kiara Westford, I still needed to find “my Alex.”

It was a cameo role –Alex is the sexy and hot hero in Perfect Chemistry and Carlos’s brother. I knew I couldn’t settle for anyone less than “perfect.”

My fans are obsessed with my Latino hero Alejandro “Alex” Fuentes. They get tattoos with Alex’s name because they’re so obsessed. I knew I couldn’t let my fans down...I needed to give my readers an Alex Fuentes that fed the fantasy of who Alex is in the book.

As I was watching the auditions and the filming date grew closer, I told Pat Peach that nobody who’d auditioned filled the bill to play Alex.

He said, if I could have any actor in the world to play Alex, who would it be?

That was easy – Alexander F. Rodriguez from Katy Perry’s Hot N Cold music video. Talk about perfection!

Both Pete and Pat told me it was a long shot. I got Alexander’s email address and emailed him. To make a long story short, I told him I couldn’t imagine anyone else making my character Alex come alive for the book trailer.

To my complete and utter shock (yes, my jaw actually dropped), Alexander emailed me back and said it sounded like fun and he was on board for the cameo role.

I flew out to California for the filming, and I felt like a teenager again seeing the heroes I created come to life. To see my characters exactly how I imagined them was surreal and wonderful and crazy and...and I got so emotional when it was over and Pete Jones called “that’s a wrap!” I started crying.

Of course when Pete looked over at me and saw tears running down my cheeks, he laughed and said, “Stop it, Simone. There is no crying in Hollywood.”

I couldn’t help’s no accident I write romance novels!

Monday, June 28, 2010

New Voice: Janet S. Fox on Faithful

Janet S. Fox is the debut novelist of Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010). From the promotional copy:

In 1904 Margaret Bennet has it all – money, position, and an elegant family home in Newport, Rhode Island.

But just as she is to enter society, her mother ruins everything, first with public displays, and finally by disappearing. Maggie’s confusion and loss are compounded when her father drags her to Yellowstone National Park, where he informs her that they will remain.

At first Maggie’s only desire is to return to Newport. But the mystical beauty of the Yellowstone landscape, and the presence of young Tom Rowland, a boy unlike the others she has known, conspire to change Maggie from a spoiled girl willing to be constrained by society to a free-thinking and brave young woman living in a romantic landscape at the threshold of a new century.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage in some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I love these questions, mainly because the answers are evolving for me as I strive to become a more mature writer.

When I first began writing longer works, I would have said I was a whole-hearted plunger. I’d dive in and never know where the story would take me, and ride with whatever came along. This was very exhilarating – rather like riding a rollercoaster that has no brakes.

Then I discovered that revision was a long and painful process that usually resulted me having to ditch entire scenes or groups of scenes and massively rewrite the whole novel; and I became intensely frustrated. Sometimes this revision process worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

I think I was lucky that Faithful became a publishable novel, with all of the waste that lay on the editing room floor.

Then I tried a process of outlining the entire project from beginning to end before I wrote one word. This was frustrating for the opposite reason – I lost interest in the book long before I finished the writing of it. It seemed so…stiff. Dead.

My latest, and so far most comfortable, approach is a marriage between these two extremes. I think of the concept, and I write about it, sometimes for days. I try to “dream” it – like when I was a kid and would play at being a princess or a dragon-tamer – I try to act it out in my brain, from the point of view of the main character. At this point, it’s all about the big idea.

Then I try to get into my character more deeply, to learn as much about her as I can. At this point, I can begin the novel.

Somewhere around page 50, I find that I need to go back and dig more deeply into my character, to discover yet more about her and her desires and dreams, and at this point it’s best if I also plan the plot – a bit. By that I mean I try and visualize scenes, the most intense and active scenes I can come up with, and I plot them on a plot chart (the usual kind, a rising line with a midpoint and climax.) The plot chart that is working for me at the moment comes from Martha Alderson’s Blockbuster Plots.

And then I start the novel again. Most of the time the first scene is entirely different, and most of the time I ditch a lot of material, but the result is satisfying and seems to work for me.

I think every beginning writer needs to find the method that works for her – I’m very left-brained so I need to release my right brain by not planning too much.

As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language of the era for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?

This is a wonderful question because it goes to the heart of what can work for readers today in the market for historical fiction.

I actively read both contemporary fiction set in the time period of my novel (early 1900s) and books that were written in the early 1900s. Contemporary historical novels gave me examples of how to set the correct tone – the balance of period language and contemporary idea. Period historical novels gave me a feeling for how people spoke and thought in that time – and how they behaved, dressed, ate. I watched period movies, too – I’m a visual person.

I read period newspaper accounts and advertisements. There’s so much available online today, from old news columns to historic travel guides. Contained within the invaluable information these provide is something deeper – the voice of an era.

I found it important also to visit museums relevant to my subject. I visited a railway museum in Livingston, Montana; because it had information about what travel would have been like in the period, and how long it would take to get from A to B. I spent time in the Yellowstone National Park Heritage and Research Center in Gardner, Montana, because I could read period documents. But, again, couched within these informational documents were voice, vocabulary, and syntax that I could capture and try to transfer to my novel.

I hope that contemporary readers will relate to Maggie’s story because it is just that – Maggie’s story. I hope the vocabulary or language will not interrupt the flow of her adventures and discoveries, but add to them.

I’m writing a second book set in the same time period, and I still use these same techniques. I’d advise any author writing historical fiction to research the history carefully and thoroughly, and with that will come diction and syntax that can be appropriated.

As a second piece of advice, I’d also caution restraint. I think it’s tempting to use all of that ripe vocabulary, to get caught in dialect or jargon or period slang, which can result in a novel that feels dated or stilted.

It’s a delicate balance.

Cynsational Notes

Through the Wardrobe: official blog of children's-YA author Janet S. Fox.

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