Friday, June 03, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an author-signed advanced reader copy of Tantalize: Kieren's Story, a graphic novel by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011), plus a magnetic Sanguini's wipe board!

In the first print journal review, Booklist cheers:

This format- and genre-blending story delivers on several counts as a vampire-werewolf adventure, a mystery, a romance with teeth and claws, an authentic look at diversity (both ethnic and species), and a darn good read."

Note: Sanguini's is the fictional restaurant that appears in Tantalize and Tantalize: Kieren's Story.

To enter, comment on this post, specify "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: June 17. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

Cynsational Winners

Winners selected by numbering the entries* and requesting a winner from
*some giveaways include chances for more than one entry per person, which is factored in.

More News

Mystery and Magic by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly, Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "I do think holding up that banner and announcing to the world: I care about this; this is who I am is important."

Why I Love Moral Dilemmas by Janice Hardy from The Compulsive Reader. Peek: "You never know where a choice might lead, but you’re pretty sure it’ll end badly for someone. And when they do make a hard decision, you cringe right along with them."

YA Dystopian Novels List compiled by Amy H. Sturgis from Redecorating Middle Earth. Peek: "...defining 'dystopian' works as those that imply a warning by describing a world gone wrong: utopias that took a bad turn, worst-case scenario post-apocalyptic societies, post-disaster tales that focus more on the undesirable communities that develop after the disasters than on the disasters themselves, etc." Note: list from 1960s releases to present day, plus a select bibliography of works about young adult dystopians.

Comics in the Classroom: 100 Tips, Tools and Resources for Teachers by Kelsey Allen from Teaching Degree. Note: many annotated links. Source: Shannon Miller.

Archetype versus Stereotype by Jen from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: "...the difference is that archetype will use the template as a starting place, and stereotype uses it as the end point."

Are You Setting Summer Goals? by Janet Reid Literary Agent. Peek: "
Failure is not trying; Failure is not paying attention; Failure is giving up."

Inside the Writer's Studio with Liz Gallagher by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "I almost always write in first person. I think that's because I need to hear my character talking in order to know what she's feeling. I want the reader to feel close to her too, so I tend to use the voice reveal my character."

Querying a Collaboration by Jessica from BookEnds, LCC - A Literary Agency. Peek: "With some collaborations authors choose to have separate agents (often they already have agents for other projects). Most of the time, however, one agent will represent the author team on the book."

A Sense of Place by Jessie from The Life Story of a Book Worm. Note: the post references Tantalize in a flattering way, but I'm referencing it here for the points made about setting and regional diversity. Peek: "For me, a sense of place, has to be real. Dusty, Texas towns are there but not everywhere in Texas. You have cacti and sand dunes sharing space. You have graffiti and wild flowers less than thirty minutes from each other. This is all I know and this is what I write."

10 Ways to Cope with Pre-presentation Jitters by Jon Gibbs from An Englishman in New Jersey. Peek: "If the venue room is empty, do something physical, like moving chairs around – it doesn’t matter if the room’s already set up perfectly, you can always move them back again."

The Magic Formula: How an E-Book Can Become a Bestseller by Karleen from Kids' Ebook Bestsellers. Peek: "I suggest that authors for children get in fast while the number of e-books for children is relatively low. It's growing quickly, but right now you have a better numbers game in this genre than in many others."

New Voice: Maureen McGowan on Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer from Cynsations. Peek: "So many people, including me, go into novel writing thinking they know how to write and tell stories, only to discover it takes time (and often several manuscripts) to develop the skills required to write publishable novels, no matter how talented you are and no matter how much you think you know about writing or literature going in." Note: re-posted from Memorial Day for thosewho took a break from the kidlitosphere over the holiday weekend.

Cynsational Book Promotion Tip: Advertise at Young Adult (& Kids Book Central). Traffic is high, rates are reasonable, the site manager is helpful. Note: I'm currently running the book trailer for Blessed on the site.

What I Learned Doing My Kickstarter Project, Part 1 by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "My Kickstarter project, Poetry: Spread the Word successfully funded on May 9th (and thank you all for your support) raising just over $6,900 to help me spread poetry into schools."

A Chat with a Cool Chick - Erzsi Deak, founder of Hen & Ink from Melissa Buron. Peek: "No matter the doom and gloom that roams the bookshelves these days, I'm a little short on razor blades, so prefer dark with a dose of levity."

2011 Arab American (Children's-YA) Book Award winner is Saving Sky by Diane Stanley (HarperCollins) and the honorable mention is Time to Pray by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills). Note: the award is given by the Arab American National Museum. See also Cynsations guest posts on Time to Pray by Maha and Ted.

Congratulations to E. Kristin Anderson on being newly appointed Hunger Mountain's new children's-YA lit assistant editor.

Release or How Authors Cope with Emotional Ups and Downs by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "Is it the best I can do with the skills I have at my command right now?"

Self-doubt by Jill Hathaway from Jill Scribbles. Peek: " was a big blow to my ego. I went from getting multiple offers of representation to being told that my book needed some insanely hard work. I cried. A lot."

Staying Motivated - My Buddy and Me by Carmela Martino from Teaching Authors. Peek: "I found it very motivating to put my goals in writing and to know I'd have to be accountable to someone at the end of the week."

Mariana Debut Year - First Signing from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "...when the first two people in line both mentioned how nervous I seemed, and I realized I was shaking and saw how chicken-scrawly and unfamiliar my writing in their books was, and all those people were looking at me, well...I became concerned."

The Epic Post on Trends (Middle Grade & YA) by author-agent Mandy Hubbard. Peek: "Just like last year, editors are really short on MG and feel this market is primed to boom in the way YA has…but that hardly any one is actually, you know, writing it."

More Personally

"Cat Calls," my short story e-book, has hit #8 on the BooksonBoard bestseller list. It's also an "free" bestseller. Download "Cat Calls" for the Nook from Barnes & Noble and for the Kindle from Amazon.

Bookends: Cynthia Leitich Smith
from the Dallas Museum of Art. Note: interview focuses on writing as a career, Native youth literature, writing fantasy, and interacting with young readers.

Blogger of Awesome-Successful Author Talk with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Mindy McGinnis from Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire. Note: interview focuses on my recent three-book deal, my YA Gothic fantasy novels, my writing process, overcoming fear, trunk novels, the query process, social networking and marketing, blogging and more.

Q & A with Cynthia Leitich Smith - The Author's Journey by Donna Bowman Bratton from Writing Down the Kidlit Page. Note: interview focuses on the pre-publication stage, traditional paths to a first sale, trends, branding, online marketing, and the inner writer versus the inner author.

Even More Personally

From last Wednesday to the Wednesday before that, I mostly took a break from my writing life. Okay, I still ended up working about five or six hours a day (because the rest of the world kept spinning).

But I also read The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, 2011) and Odd Girl In by Jo Whittemore (Aladdin, 2011) and met with friends for lunch at 24 Diner and tea at Sweetish Hill Bakery & Cafe and saw "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Thor" with Greg at Alamo Drafthouse.

Hence my twitter exchange of the week:

From @CynLeitichSmith (Cynthia Leitich Smith): @HornBook @librarianpirate *Loved* #Thor. Thinking #Asgard for my summer vacation. Don't suppose there's an @fourseasons in that realm....

From @FourSeasons (Four Seasons Hotels): @CynLeitichSmith No hotel in that realm yet, but we'll try to make a pitch to our development team ;)

I also took a long walk to appreciate the flowers.

Exhibit flowers...

From Greg Leitich Smith

Personal Links:

Thursday, June 02, 2011

New Voice: Gae Polisner on The Pull of Gravity

Gae Polisner is the first-time author of The Pull of Gravity (Frances Foster/FSG, 2011). From the promotional copy:

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, Scooter, is dying from a freak disease.

The Scoot’s final wish is that Nick and their quirky classmate, Jaycee Amato, deliver a prized first-edition copy of
Of Mice and Men to the Scoot’s father.

There’s just one problem: the Scoot’s father walked out years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. So, guided by Steinbeck’s life lessons, and with only the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off to find him.

Characters you’ll want to become friends with and a narrative voice that sparkles with wit make this a truly original coming-of-age story.

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

From the time I could read chapter books (probably by the age of six) well into my young adulthood (before the busy constraints of “real life” took over), I was a voracious reader, one of those kids that came home from school every day and devoured an entire novel, unable to sleep or put it down until the very last page was turned.

The first novel I remember not being able to put down was Don’t Take Teddy by Babbis Friis Baastaad (Scribner, 1967). The book had won the 1969 Mildred L. Batchelder award and was about a boy and his brother, Teddy, in the Norwegian countryside. The book opens with the boys playing baseball. Teddy is mentally challenged and wants to play but the other boys kind of taunt him. He picks up a baseball and chucks it, not realizing it’s not a ball but a rock, and accidentally injures one of the other players. Teddy’s brother is petrified that the authorities will take Teddy away, so he grabs him and they run off together, fending for themselves in the harsh, rustic countryside. Poignant and terrifying moments ensue, at least if you are an eight-year-old girl.

I have very few moments of clear memory from my childhood before the age of 9 or 10, but I distinctly remember sitting on the couch in the living room of my first house (which means I couldn’t have been older than 8), frantically turning pages to see if Teddy would be okay before we had to leave and go somewhere. My sister sat breathless at my side waiting for me to finish because she had read it and wanted to discuss it with me.

Indeed, there’s an entire section of The Pull of Gravity that is a complete homage to that book. If you email me, I’ll tell you which one, but talk about a book sticking with you!

As preteen and young adult, I basically read every book I could get my hands on – from E.L. Konigsburg (From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (both Atheneum, 1967), and the latter of which my mother read aloud to me when I was home, sick as a dog from school and, oh my gosh, I can remember awakening every few hours from a sweaty, feverish sleep to request another chapter) and Mary Rodgers (Freaky Friday and Freaky Monday (both HarperCollins)) to Paul Zindel (The Pigman (Harper, 1968); "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds" (1964); My Darling, My Hamburger (Harper, 1969)) and S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders (Viking, 1967) and That Was Then, This is Now (Viking, 1971)) and, talk about books that defined what you knew of adolescence, the incomparable Judy Blume (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Yearling, 1970); Forever (Bradbury, 1975); Deenie (Bradbury, 1973)).

Although I ventured occasionally into other genres (the astoundingly good Time Trilogy by Madeline L’Engle (FSG, 1962-1986)(OMG, my publisher!)), character-driven, realistic, contemporary YA was always the genre that called to me, and, alas, this hasn’t changed.

As such, when I set out to write a young adult book, this is really what I striven for: a contemporary (but classic) story driven by its characters--in my case, Nick, The Scoot and Jaycee.

I am definitely a reader who wants character over story, which is to say, to me, the characters are the story. If I care enough about the characters, I want – no, need – to know what will happen to them, and I hope in this regard, I’ve succeeded with The Pull of Gravity, while taking the reader on a page-turning journey as well.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?

This is a great question, and I don’t have all the answers, given the rapidly-changing nature of technology. It is certainly a question that concerns me given that I write contemporary realistic fiction (both women’s and young adult).

Technology is a pervasive aspect of our culture and, in my humble opinion, you cannot get away with writing contemporary fiction without taking technology into consideration.

Especially if you are a young adult, every day of your life involves exposure to, and use of, technology, from email to facebook and Twitter, to the internet and Google searches (etc.), not to mention the ubiquitous iPods and cell phones and texting.

The concerns are several-fold (I was going to say two-fold, but really there are more): (i) you have to get the technology right, know how it’s used, and worry that, by the time the book is published and out there in the world, the technology will be outdated, thereby making your book feel antiquated; (ii) you have to get the voice/slang of the technology down; and (iii) you have to account for the existence of the technology in the storyline.

Starting from (iii) – accounting for the existence of technology -- and moving backwards, for example, it used to be that when kids ran off by themselves in a story, there was no way to communicate with them or expect that a parent could find them. Of course, the kids could find a payphone, but that ability to contact went in only one direction.

Now, with the existence of cell phones, it’s not only the case that the parents could contact the kids, but that it is expected that the kids will check in with the parents by cell. And, of course, there is the issue of a cell phone running out of charge.

I have heard of several writers deciding to have their protagonists forget their phone, or lose it somewhere, or have it quickly run out of charge, but I think sooner or later, these ploys are bound to get old. Kids have cell phones. Most of them take them everywhere (and, yes, my 15-yr-old son hates his cell phone, never remembers to charge it, constantly loses it, and doesn’t take it anywhere, but that’s only because we refuse to buy him an iPhone [see, e.g. losing it]).

As for (ii) – having the voice or slang of the technology down – in The Pull of Gravity, Nick and Jaycee, and especially Nick and his brother, text to one another throughout the story. It felt important to properly reflect the way a kid would text these days with all the inherent abbreviations and “initialisms” (e.g. LOL, OMG, or shortening text to phrases such as “b4” or “c u soon”) while also making sure it didn’t make the read confusing to a kid not so keen on such forms of communications or make the manuscript feel so specifically of-a-time that it would soon outdate it, or worse, feel forced, and take away from its impact. I found this particular issue very challenging and thought-provoking when writing and revising The Pull of Gravity.

Finally, with regard to (i) knowing how the different technology is used, again tricky given the ever-evolving nature of such things. For example, when I first wrote The Pull of Gravity, flip phones and the likes were huge and Nick was constantly “flipping open” his cell phone.

By the time I got my book deal and my first pass pages were being prepared, more and more kids had iPhones and the likes which meant less and less “flipping open.” I went through and took the references to how the phone was used out as much as possible. In another scene, I have the kids using a GPS, when, by the time, the book gains steam, most kids will have a GPS-function on their phones and not need a separate device (sigh).

Notwithstanding the crazy-rapid changing nature of technology and the impossibility to, therefore, always be completely up-to-date, I think it is essential, if you write contemporary realistic fiction, to include it in your story. It is a ubiquitous influence on our culture and leaving it out would date a manuscript even more.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Guest Post: Carla Killough McClafferty on The Many Faces of George Washington

By Carla Killough McClafferty

Did George Washington really look like the Gilbert Stuart portrait that appears on the one dollar bill?

My new book The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Carolrhoda, 2011) tackles this question.

The leadership of Mount Vernon, Washington's home, decided to create three historically accurate figures of George Washington to depict him at the ages of 19, 45 and 57.

To accomplish this, they gathered a team of experts in the fields of science, technology, art, and history to conduct a forensic study of the man. Only one thing that was off limits: George Washington's bones.

Scientists studied the life mask, bust, and life-size statue of Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon using a cutting-edge three dimensional spacial laser scanner.

After this, some of the world's leading artists took over. They brought life and character to the painted wax heads. They inserted human hair at a time to make it look as if hair was growing out of his head. No detail was overlooked as the team created the three incredibly life-like figures.

In The Many Faces of George Washington, half the book details how the figures were made, and the other half is a biography. The heart of the book comes from the biographical material.

As a biographer, I must connect with my subject on an emotional level. For some of the people I've written about, this connection came slowly as I studied their lives and read their letters. With George Washington, that connection came suddenly, unexpectedly-and in the dark.

When I decided to wanted to write this book, first I contacted Mount Vernon and received approval and blessings for the project. My next step was to arrange a visit Mount Vernon to see the figures for myself. To my complete surprise and delight, they told me I could stay on the grounds of Mount Vernon during my trip.

I'd been there for a couple of days when I decided I'd like to get up early to watch the sun rise. I got up while it was still dark and walked toward the mansion. I went around to the back of house that overlooks the Potomac River and sat down on the piazza.

In the silence, I watched as the first stirrings of light began to change the night sky. I soaked in the look of the place, the smell of the place, and the feel of the place. The sun peeked over the tree line. I watched as it slowly climbed higher and higher. When it cleared the tree line, the orange fireball was reflected in the river. It was spectacular.

I wondered how many times George Washington had seen the sunrise from this exact spot. My emotional connection to the man happened suddenly at that moment. George Washington was no longer a distant historic figure to me; he was a real man who loved Mount Vernon more than any other place. And I was a guest at his home.

I hope to introduce readers to the George Washington I've come to know in the pages of The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon.

Cynsational Notes

Carla is also the author of In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry (FSG, 2008), Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (FSG, 2006), The Head Bones Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-Ray (FSG, 2001), and Forgiving God: A Woman's Struggle to Understand When God Answers No (Discovery House, 1995).

Download a PDF of the discussion guide for The Many Faces of George Washington.

See also Write Nonfiction for Kids? Break Out with a High Concept Idea: an interview with Carla Killough McClafferty by Darcy Pattison from Wow! Women on Writing. Peek: "A high-concept children’s book is one that takes a universal theme and puts a fresh, original, creative twist on it. It can be explained in a sentence or two and will leave you wanting to read the book; or in the case of writers, it may leave you wondering, 'Why didn’t I think of that?'" Note: also touches on proposals and otherwise connecting with an editor/publisher.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Critique Group Interview: Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold, Kimberly Willis Holt, Lola Schaefer

CLS: Thank you for inviting us to peek in on your group! Who are the members?

All (from left to right): Lola Schaefer, Kimberly Willis Holt, Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold.

CLS: How did you all come together?

JI: Kathi’s the force behind us—and the hard-working glue.

I remember sitting at a wet table with her in the authors’ tent on a rainy day in Nashville, trying to cram both our writing and personal-life catch-up with each other into one more too-brief visit. We dreamed a bit about how nice it would be to get together for more than the occasional meeting at a festival or conference.

KA (pictured): Not long after that, I met up with Kimberly at an IRA conference in Orlando over donuts and coffee and we started a conversation that got cut off by our individual schedules. Frustrating. It really was these quick moments, in which we caught up just long enough to wish that we had more time together that made it all happen. I’d say we all dreamed hard. There’s a lot to be said for that.

The thing is, my husband’s family has a working cattle ranch outside of La Grange, Texas, that’s about an hour from Austin. The house is roomy and comfortable, perfect for a retreat.

So, one day I asked myself, “why not?” Then I asked Jeanette, and she said, “why not?” Kimberly agreed to come.

LS: In the meantime, Kathi invited both Rebecca and I to join her with Kimberly and Jeanette. We accepted her generous offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

KWH: I remember being excited by the chance to meet with other writers, but also a bit apprehensive. I'd met Kathi in '96 and was fortunate enough to cross her path several times. Jeanette and I spoke on a panel at the Texas Book Festival the year my first book, My Louisiana Sky (Holt, 1998), came out. I remembered her as a soft spoken, gentle soul. I'd never met Rebecca or Lola, but I had a hunch I'd like them, too.

My apprehension was over the amount of time our group would be spending together. Four days is a long time to spend with anyone, much less folks you don't know that well. What if we ended up not liking each other? What if they didn't like me?

I decided to build in some insurance. I told Kathi I'd be renting my own car at the airport because I may have to leave early. An hour into the retreat, I knew I wouldn't be. These were women who lived my life--balancing family with writing.

A couple of years ago I confessed my back-up plan. Of course to this day they call it, "Kimberly's Escape Plan." Thank goodness they laughed about it instead of being offended.

KA: Well, heck, how often have we all wished that we had an “Escape Plan,” but weren’t as smart as Kimberly?

CLS: How do you structure your schedule, meetings, menus (if applicable)?

RKD (pictured): The mornings start with coffee. Always coffee. By the way, I have learned to like strong coffee. These are cowgirls, after all.

I love the fact That no matter when I get up (and it’s usually early, like 6 a.m. or so) someone else has been up and put the coffee on. Love that. Ready to pour, knowing someone is up and writing already. (I do sometimes get it ready the night before, so hey...)

LS: Breakfast is a wake-up time. We chat, we eat, and sometimes share our goal for the day. Many mornings, Kimberly and I take a vigorous walk from the house down to the highway and back - about two miles round trip.

KA: Yes, Lola and Kimberly used to do this, but at our most recent retreat, I had to go rescue Kimberly from the mad cows.

LS: For the rest of the morning, we all find our little spot to sit and think and write. Around noon, we gather when we hear the clink of silverware. It's another time to chat and eat. One by one we leave the kitchen and again find a place to call our own for the afternoon.

RKD: During the day Jeanette and Kimberly both are usually propped up in their beds, writing away, Jeanette on her laptop, Kimberly on her yellow pad. It takes me longer to get going.

I futz around for a bit, maybe go in and sit on Jeanette’s bed, ask her how the writing is going, and we might talk over a certain passage or place in her manuscript.

When Lola is there, she takes off to a quiet place and gets working. I like to interrupt her and ask her opinion on where I am on a story. Kidding. Kind of.

KA: We’re all guilty of interrupting each other. I’ve discovered that if I put on a fresh pot of coffee, and stand next to it, the smell will eventually lure someone toward me. It’s sneaky, but it works. (Shh...don’t tell the others that I do this).

RKD: That’s the one is ever too busy to stop and look up and offer ideas or advice or a listening ear. Kathi walks back and forth quietly, goes out onto the porch, into the back bedroom, and works.

Sometimes we’ll have breakfast together, but at times each of us will go in alone and pour a bowl of cereal or toast a bagel. More coffee.

KA: See how sneaky I am? Rebecca thought I just walked back and forth aimlessly, when really, I wanted someone to notice. Coffee has so many uses.

LS: (Don't look too closely. You might catch someone napping for a few minutes!)

JI (pictured): Each retreat is different, shaped by the needs we bring to them.

Our days shape themselves. We’re all morning workers. Usually Kimberly or I am up first, switching on the coffee pot.

Sometimes there’s quiet visiting, but pretty soon we’re all in our spaces. Writing. Reading one of the manuscripts left out on the table for critique, or having a quiet talk about it.

Afternoons are more varied—more reading and writing. A trip to town to check email or buy groceries.

Evenings are for gathering in the pit—the living room sofa area where we talk shop and recount what our kids are doing. We read aloud and critique. Bring up problems. Challenge ourselves with writing games—ten minutes using five words. One time, Kathi wrote a longish piece about a boy who wouldn’t even be in the story when it became The Underneath.

LS: After dinner, there's usually some porch and swing time. It's lovely to sit outside, watch the sky turn soft purple and listen to the leaves in the trees. Some evenings we sit together and read and offer celebrations and suggestions on our work. Other nights we chat about the industry. Once in a while we offer up a writing exercise or two and end up laughing ourselves silly.

KWH: Here's the beauty of it all. We don't have much of a structure and yet a lovely routine seems to have organically formed from our gatherings. Somehow meals get cooked and dishes get washed.

And we still devote a great deal of our time to writing and reading each other’s work. We have all found our spaces at the ranch--Rebecca's is always one corner of the dining table. Kathi, Jeanette and I have squatters’ rights on certain benches on the back porch. However, we move inside the house when the heat becomes unbearable.

Some rituals are a must--We always make one visit to town to check email, grocery shop, and eat pie at Royers Round Top Cafe and the last evening is always reserved for a meal at the Mexican restaurant in LaGrange.

JI: There’s always our lunch in Round Top (have to buy the pie) and our final Tex-Mex dinner night to look forward to, and disasters to enjoy remembering--my efforts to introduce Rebecca to tofu, the time Lola set the oven on fire....

RKD: I love evenings the most. Pouring a glass of wine after dinner, we listen to what each of us has written during the day. We offer comments. We dig in to the manuscripts with precision. And eat pie.

We’ve come up with titles, character names, plot promises. Sometimes we get goofy and laugh ourselves silly. They often laugh at things I say, which amazed me at first, because they think I’m funny. At home, no one thinks I’m particularly funny!

KA: It’s important to have at least one “thrill” per retreat. The burning oven certainly ranks as one of those.

RKD: I remember setting the oven on fire (was it bacon?) with Lola. She claims it was her fault, but since she’s the cook and I’m not, it was probably mine.

Kimberly, Jeanette, Kathi and Lola are all good cooks. So they let me off easy and I make a simple dinner one night (maybe) and revel in their meals (except the Tofu) and do dishes. I help chop and pour wine, too. Just sayin’...

KA: This past fall, we had a drive-by with a coral snake. I can’t remember which came first—snake? cows? snake? cows?

CLS: Where do you meet? Why is that space good for y'all?

KWH: The ranch is near LaGrange. It is a rambling hacienda with plenty of room and taxidermy to set the mood for women writers who like to think of themselves as daring and mysterious.

That is what happens to one when they pass a bobcat in the hallway and are peered at by wild prey from every corner. It creates a wild atmosphere, and one finds courage to face the page each day. Unless you count the time on this last retreat when Kathi had to rescue me from a group of cattle.

LS: It's an idyllic location to forget about other responsibilities and find yourself and your writing.

JI: It’s a perfect place for a retreat, beautiful, quiet, isolated, spacious, and with corners that we’ve all staked out for ourselves. It’s a place where the land talks to you.

CLS: So, who's your big-picture person? Your logic guru? Your poet? The line-editor of the group? What other superpowers have I missed?

LS (pictured): Kathi is our general manager. She organizes the date of the retreat and arrival times at the airport. If that wasn't enough, she typically buys food and prepares that first evening meal to welcome us all to the ranch.

As far as other roles, we all step in at different times on different days. Although I do have to say that when it comes to parsing out a sentence, Rebecca shines. She's all about "just the right word."

KA: I agree that Rebecca is our poet extraordinaire.

JI: Lola’s our practical teacher, structured and encouraging. Rebecca and Kathi are our by-definition poets, but Kimberly’s lovely prose is poetry, too.

Rebecca’s our gentle soul, Kimberly our home soul, Kathi our push to get out and do something with our musings.

KWH: I can't quite peg anyone. All I can say is this--each of these women have many gifts and my work is better having had them read it and giving me their input. They have my respect, admiration, and love.

KA: It seems to me that we each bring different strengths to the table at different times. We completely trust each other and that is perhaps the huge value that we’ve given ourselves over the years. I may not agree with what one of them has to tell me, but I trust that the advice is solid and worthy and I would be crazy to not pay attention.

RKD: Every single one offers some of the same to the group; patience, hard work, a listening ear, an inviting ‘come on in’ even while they are working, yet something special, too.

You can always interrupt Jeanette (or at least, I do) because she works hard yet is always ready for a bit of a breather and an interesting idea for you to try or think about when you get back to working.

Kathi is such a good teacher and offers advice on the whole picture, Kimberly zeros in on character development and structure, and Lola will help you take everything apart and put it back together.

KA: I would say that Jeanette is the best copy-editor ever. Just before I turned in The Underneath, she went over it line by line. Her background in journalism is a boon for all of us.

Kimberly is the questioner. She asks the hard questions that help us see our work from the inside out.

LS: Some of us work on picture books or poetry and some work on novels or early chapter books. Since our work is varied, so are our opportunities to offer suggestions.

CLS: What have been a few of your most glowing moments? The memories that stand out?

KA: I’ll never forget sitting on the porch for the inaugural reading of Lola’s picture book about butts.

LS: Pie at the Round Top Cafe puts a smile on all of our faces. It's a tradition. Literary memories--we were the first to read or hear parts of award-winning novels and picture books.

We watched Kimberly use a line from an evening writing exercise in her book Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family (Henry Holt, 2006)(see movie). We watch crude ideas come full circle to extraordinary literature.

KWH: The waitress that assumed we were together to shop.

Kathi remarked, "Why do people always think a group of women out of town together means a shopping trip?"

There are many more memories, but this one symbolizes so much of our time together. Shopping is the last thing any of us wants to do.

JI: Every retreat starts out with glowing moments as we come together at the airport, two of us and then three, and then we’re all there, in the middle of conversations picked up as though they were never broken off.

There have been successes to celebrate with pie. Starred reviews. Awards. We pored over outfit possibilities for Kathi to wear to the National Book Awards.

We’ve got our myths going, and growing. Kimberly will probably never live down needing to be rescued when a bunch of cows tried to join her morning walk.

KA: Nope, Kimberly will forever be reminded about the cows.

JI: Kathi has earned her reputation for being able to handle wildlife from snakes to scorpions.

KA: Actually, I think it’s Rebecca who handles the wildlife. She’s the scorpion spotter and swatter. I’ve never seen anyone smack a scorpion harder with a shoe than Rebecca!

RKD: One of the things I love the most is process and watching the process of all these amazing writers I call my friends; my cowgirls.

You get to see a first line turn into the beginning nugget of something. You hear the plot forming as they are talking. You can stop by a chair and talk over a word, a line, a paragraph taking on a life of its own.

I am the peeping tom of process. Did I say I love it?

CLS: Biggest challenges?

KWH: Finding a week where we all can attend. We all travel a lot and have family obligations, but I think our retreat has become a high priority.

JI: Yes, calendars are a problem. We haven’t yet resorted to Excel for finding times when we’re all free, but if one of us actually knew Excel...

LS: Disciplining ourselves to work in isolation when there is so much to learn from one another and a year of personal experiences that we're anxious to share.

KA: The cows, y'all!

CLS: How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

KWH (pictured): Any apprehension that I felt prior to that first retreat has grown into finding a safe haven with good friends that I look forward to attending each year.

LS: I think that Kathi, Kimberly and Jeanette have faithfully met each and every time.

The past two years I've been absent. My consulting work in schools has increased, and I've taken a sabbatical from the ranch, hoping to return one year in the near future.

But since we sometimes share works-in-progress via email, we're never more than a keystroke away from one another.

RKD: Lola and I always shared a room, and I’ve missed her these last few years (I missed a few myself). But now Kathi shares the room with me, and what I have loved about both of them is that we lay in our beds and talk quietly and share bits about family or what we’re working on or the day or thoughts on a book we love or are reading.

Often it helps me to fall asleep. At first I was a scaredy cat at night, out there all alone on 2200 hundred acres surrounded by nothing but cows, horses, and assorted wildlife. But I’ve gotten used to it.

JI: We’ve become more a part of each other’s non-writing lives as we’ve shared personal challenges and joys and followed each other’s kids growing up, going through school, taking jobs.

KA: We’re growing up together, we are. And even when one of us is absent, that doesn’t change.

CLS: What makes your group special?

LS: Five unique women who totally support one another.

KWH: Kathi, Jeanette, Rebecca, Lola.

KA: Kimberly.

JI: It’s the kindness—the absolute generosity of dear friends sharing their talent and their lives.

KA: Each other.

(Pictured: Jeanette, Kathi, Kimberly and Rebecca.)

CLS: What do you see in your crystal ball?

KWH: More and much much more of the same.

LS: Unconditional kindness, generosity, support and understanding!

JI: Nothing crystal clear, that’s for sure. This feels like a time for trying something new—new forms, new subjects—and probably part of our talk will be about how we’re going to change in this business that is so different from the one we all entered.

But there’s strength in coming together, especially at a place where there’ve been women looking out over the same land for the last 150 years, wondering what the future holds.

KA: I can’t see Kimberly taking a walk with the cows again, but beyond that, what everyone else said.

RKD: I am looking in my crystal ball, and I see many more years at the ranch and even some years in Paris or in a house by the sea in Maine. We will investigate and explore other places, other genres, other books, and yet we will keep and love the tradition of what we have and what brought us together.

We will push each other and support each other and...maybe one day...I’ll cook them a really great meal.

KA: We’ll have pie.

Last Call: Giveaway of Manuscript Critique by Elizabeth Law & Convo in the Comments

Have you been following the conversation in the comments following Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law's recent interview with YA author Allen Zadoff?

Here are some highlights:

From Elizabeth:

"It's easier to help an author build a career when you have the luxury of taking several books to do it."

"I’m a very bad prognosticator, but I continue to hear that horror and ghost stories are coming back, and that middle grade adventure will also be coming on strong."

"...we are seeing amazing, extraordinary YA writing right now. The bar keeps getting higher and higher. And with such very good material coming out, and more talented writers than ever entering the field (like Allen, for example) I think the success of YA will continue."

From Allen:

"Yes, I do get stuck. Here's a little trick that helps me. I pretend someone else is working on my manuscript tomorrow. A different writer, but someone I like. My only job today is not to screw that guy by leaving him in a tough spot. I get something on the page for 'him' so he doesn't have to start cold in the morning."

"For me characters appear as who they are, not as who I'd like them to be. So if a female character wants me to tell her story, she'll tap me on the shoulder and let me know."

"Sometimes editors don't know how to give a note/editorial comment in the most effective way. I was actually taught that it's not their job to tell me well; it's my job to interpret well and fix the story."

Last Call

In celebration of Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law's recent interview with YA author Allen Zadoff, she is giving away a critique of up to thirty manuscript pages.

Her response will include a thirty-minute phone call and short, written notes about the submitted work, which can be fiction, nonfiction, or chapter book. The winner will have two weeks to submit for critique. The phone call/feedback will occur within a week after that. Submissions should be writing targeted to ages 8 and up (middle grade or YA). The phone call may also touch on submissions, the market for the book, the publishing process--anything the author wants to know!

To enter, comment at Elizabeth and Allen's interview and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you may email me with "Elizabeth and Allen" in the subject line.

An extra entry will go to those who comment with a thoughtful question or make a related comment. Extra entries also will go to those who promote this giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment. Deadline: midnight CST May 31. This giveaway is international.

Monday, May 30, 2011

New Voice: Maureen McGowan on Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer

Maureen McGowan is the first-time author of Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer (both Silver Dolphin, 2011). From the promotional copy of Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer (see more on CNW below):

In this thrilling story full of adventure and romance, Sleeping Beauty is more than just a lonely princess waiting for her prince--she's a brave, tenacious girl who never backs down from a challenge.

With vampire-slaying talents that she practices in secret, Sleeping Beauty puts her courage to the test in the dark of night, fighting evil as she searches for a way to break the spell that has cut her off from her family.

In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Sleeping Beauty and decide where she goes next-but no matter the choice, the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you've ever read!

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

I love how you used the word “apprenticeship” because that’s what it’s like. So many people, including me, go into novel writing thinking they know how to write and tell stories, only to discover it takes time (and often several manuscripts) to develop the skills required to write publishable novels, no matter how talented you are and no matter how much you think you know about writing or literature going in.

I’m a bit of a craft junky and have quite an extensive collection of writing books—some that I go back to often, some that I’ve only skimmed. Lately, the books I find most interesting and helpful are books on storytelling structure by screenwriting gurus such as Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and Michael Hauge, but I’m not sure I would have been ready for those books, or would have gleaned as much from them, when I was a beginning writer.

As for books that helped me early on, I find it hard to pick just one so I’m going to cheat and pick two very different books, because each made a huge difference to me for very different reasons.

The first is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (Harper Collins, 1993). I had taken courses on writing fiction before finding this book, and I had received critiques and heard advice similar to that contained in this fabulous resource book, but I didn’t initially believe some of that advice I’d been given, especially since I was writing humor at the time and so much of that is voice.

While reading this book, huge light bulbs went off for me, and I finally let go of excuses like, “But that’s my voice!” and learned to critically analyze how I was using words. I discovered that the “rules” they suggested didn’t have to kill my voice, or make me sound generic or flat. Rather, they could help to enhance and develop my true storytelling voice.

It’s no coincidence that my submissions started to gain attention from agents and contest judges soon after I read this book.

The other book was On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000). I’ve enjoyed other “writers’ life” books, such as Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994), but King’s book lit a Las-Vegas-hotel-sign-worth of light bulbs for me. For one thing, he helped me get over the literary vs. genre fiction struggle I was having with myself, by validating great storytelling as a difficult and worthy creative profession to pursue.

Also, at the time, I was working with a large group of critique partners whose voices were getting into my head as I wrote, making me question my judgment, and either stalling my process, or sanitizing the stories I wanted to tell.

King’s suggestion to write the first draft with the door closed was a huge breakthrough for me, and the manuscript I wrote (with the door closed) after reading his advice was the one that landed me my first agent.

Now with a few more manuscripts under my belt, I do have the confidence to let a few very trusted critique partners peek behind the door while I’m writing my first draft, but only if I need help or reassurance, and while I rely, more than I can say, on my critique partners to read and give feedback on that first draft, I no longer let anyone see my work until I have at least a rough draft of my vision down on paper.

Also, Stephen King’s personal story is incredibly inspirational.

As a paranormal writer, what first attracted you to that tradition? Have you been a long-time paranormal reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I had written a few contemporary set manuscripts before heading in paranormal and “other world” directions. And I did love writing stories set in the real world, but there’s something very freeing and exciting about writing paranormals and/or urban fantasy.

As a child, I enjoyed fantasy fiction--I remember the C.S. Lewis books in particular--but at some point found all the strange names and other-world histories in fantasy got in the way for me and slowed the stories down.

I might get rotten tomatoes thrown at me for admitting this, but I still haven’t read all the way through The Lord of the Rings (by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954-1955), in spite of trying again just before the movies came out. I get caught up in the pages and pages of wars in the second volume every time. For me, it gets tedious.

As a reader, I didn’t delve back into anything paranormal (or fantasy) until Anne Rice. I devoured her books when I discovered them. Then, more recently, the books in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series were like crack for me. (Not that I know what crack is like.) But I inhaled the first four or five books in her series, and after that, decided to try my hand at writing something in the urban fantasy or paranormal realm.

Then I started reading YA authors such as Suzanne Collins, Carrie Ryan and Kelley Armstrong and was awed by the scope and boldness of the stories. I think that some of the most exciting books coming out these days are for the teen market and crossover to adults really well.

I find creating stories with one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy or the future exciting and freeing.

As a reader, I love the fast pace of many recent paranormal and post-apocalyptic stories, and I think this kind of story lets the reader (whether teen or adult) explore dangerous situations and fears—and even dangerous relationships—under the safety blanket of “it’s all make-believe”.

All fiction is make-believe...but add a paranormal element and you can heighten so many elements.

With my new Twisted Tales series, I loved taking well-known tales and re-imagining them as more action-packed and exciting stories. I placed my heroines in lots of dangerous situations, but gave them the skills, both physical and internal, to survive and earn their happy endings.

I also wanted to “fix” some of the problems I saw in the classic fairytales. For example, the prince in Cinderella falls in love with her at the ball, but then he can’t recognize her the next day because she’s no longer dressed in fancy clothes? Really?

Maybe in the original story this was intended as a comment on class structure, or something, but I don't like the message it sends to modern girls.

All in all, I hope I’ve re-imagined these classic fairy tales in a way that will satisfy readers who love traditional happy endings and handsome princes, but I’ve also made the stories more exciting and given the heroines the courage, power and ability to save themselves.

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?

Although I’m still early in my career, I’ve already been with two agents.

The first time I was looking, I pitched to an agent at a conference. And I was lucky enough to have had a personal introduction to that agent ahead of time, through a great writer-friend and now HarperTeen author Diana Peterfreund who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall at the time, but had read the first 50 pages of my manuscript in a contest. Diana actually pitched my book for me to her agent at a party. (You’ve got to love the generosity of so many authors.) Ultimately, I signed with a different agent at that same agency, but it all started with that pitch.

I do believe in conference pitches, because to me it’s like a free pass past the sometimes tricky query stage. Also, conferences give writers a chance to size up the agents, by hearing them speak on panels and/or meeting them in person. Following agent blogs and twitter feeds is another way to get a sense of an agent, if you can't make it to conferences.

While my first agent was great, we never did end up finding the right home for any of the projects I wrote while with her (all adult fiction), and ultimately, when I decided I wanted to write for young adults, I knew it was time to move on—the scariest decision I’ve made in my writing-career to date.

The second time around, I’d like to claim I did everything the smart way. And I meant to. I really did. But in the end, before I was even finished my new project, I sent out a very small number of queries, just to test the waters, and much to my surprise, within a couple of days of finishing the new manuscript, a dark post-apocalyptic YA, I already had two agents who wanted to represent me, so I didn’t have time to cast the net more widely.

Ultimately, I decided to go with a newer agent at a major agency, Charlie Olsen at InkWell Management, and this time it started with a cold query—proving they can work. However, I don't advise others to send queries before you're finished. There were some extenuating circumstances in my case.

In terms of fit, I think a writer should choose an agent who’s over-the-moon excited about your manuscript. One who’s very confident in his or her ability to sell your book and can articulate a plan to make that happen.

But enthusiasm alone isn’t enough. An agent should be able to demonstrate or show evidence of his or her ability to sell the kind of story you write to the kind of publisher you want to work with.

While you don’t need to be best friends with your agent—it is a business relationship, first and foremost—I think it helps if you share a similar sense of humor and find it easy to talk to him or her. They will be representing you, so you need to feel confident they understand what you want and believe you’ll be proud to have them as your advocate.

I’ve also discovered that, for me, I want someone driven and whose advice, vision for my work, will reinforce my dreams, not my fears. I’m a master at reinforcing my fears all on my own.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy of Cinderella: Ninja Warrior:

In this fast-paced story full of adventure and romance, Cinderella is more than just a servant girl waiting for her prince—she's a tough, fearless girl who is capable of taking charge of a dangerous situation.

Seeking to escape the clutches of her evil stepmother, Cinderella perfects her ninja skills and magic talents in secret, waiting for the day when she can break free and live happily ever after.

In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Cinderella and decide where she goes next—but no matter the choice; the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you've ever read!

Remembering on Memorial Day

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