Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bookseller Interview: Rachel Heath of King's English Bookshop

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rachel Heath is the children's marketing manager at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.

Thank you for joining us at Cynsations! Could you please tell us about The King's English Bookshop, especially with relation to books for kids and teens?

The King's English Bookshop opened in 1977, and in 35 years we have grown to become a leading independent bookstore in Utah with an excellent national reputation as well. We are proud members of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), Indie Bound Commerce (IBC), and Local First Utah, which our owner, Betsy Burton, helped launch and is still an active leader for.

Our children’s room is one of our strongest assets. We have a strong reputation among readers, publishers and fellow booksellers for our taste in children’s literature. We have an incredibly strong staff (all of whom read the books we sell, of course), an astute buyer (with twenty years of experience and her own national reputation among publishers), and a welcoming atmosphere, complete with a gigantic bear for snuggling.

How did you become interested in working for the shop? What background led you there?

As is the story for most anyone who works in books, I have been a reader from the very beginning. I grew up on books. My mother served with the Children’s Literature Association of Utah (CLAU) for many years so books are in my blood. Her extensive knowledge in children’s literature is one I will always aspire to. She took a job in the children’s room of The King’s English Bookshop when I was thirteen and I too considered myself an employee of sorts ever since, with frequent visits, small tasks at events and gift wrapping for the store for a number of holiday seasons.

What sorts of children's-YA author/illustrator programming do you do at the shop?

As the Children’s Marketing Manager I get to schedule everything relevant to the children’s room: author visits, story times, book-launch parties, writing workshops, children’s book clubs… you name it, I arrange it. And I love it.

How do you connect with children's-YA authors/illustrators -- through publishers, independent publicists, etc.?

Carol Lynch Williams at The King's English
I work with publishers and publicists from all the major publishing houses, encouraging them to send nationally known authors to The King’s English.

Utah is currently swimming in talented, local children’s and young adult authors that have sprung up here and a favorite part of my job is to make sure our local authors and illustrators are properly celebrated.

Planning a successful event is hard work. Publicists sometimes help us plan events; their help is always appreciated. But if authors, especially local authors, are willing to work on their own events, we’ll almost always say yes. An author’s efforts determine half of each event’s success.

Do you do outreach/events with the local author community? Could you tell us about the book scene in the Salt Lake City area?

For an independent store “community” is key. I work hard to establish strong relationships with the authors here. I believe it is important that they know they have someone on their side. It’s true that not every book is a match for our store; in which case we won’t invest ourselves in it. But when a local author is connected to us we will sell books for many of their off-site appearances.

Salt Lake City is very big on the YA scene right now, but we also thrive in all genres of children’s books. The King’s English is in a residential neighborhood surrounded by families who, to our great delight, value books and reading.

If you're open to authors/illustrators contacting you directly, what's the best way to go about that?

Ally Condie with bookseller Rachel Heath
E-mail, as opposed to a phone call or dropping by the bookshop, is the best way to introduce yourself. Tell me about your book and what your connection is to the area.

What will you do for this event and how many guests do you expect to bring on your own? Who is your publisher and how can the bookstore get access to your books? Do you have a distributor?

My e-mail address is and anyone who answers the phone here would tell you that.

How far in advance do you schedule events? How do you market them?

For a good turnout we try to plan everything at least two months ahead of time. We go through a number of different marketing techniques to try to pull in the best audience possible for each event. We start with briefings for the local media as well as in-store advertising. We print materials, set up displays and publicize through social media.

What tips to you have for authors/illustrators in planning a bookstore event?

Social media can be a wonderful thing. Our most successful author events owed a lot to the author’s work on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Family and friends are great resources as well. They already love you and want to support you and can be helpful in drawing a crowd.

Some authors have implemented their own marketing ideas, advertising that they will be raffling some of their own prizes and/or serving refreshments. But it all comes down to publicizing the event.

What are some innovative ideas that worked well in your store?

We use a lot of Facebook and Twitter ourselves to encourage the audience to come. Posting the right words at the right time can offer great results.

What shouldn't authors/illustrators do?

I’ve said it a lot but it bears repeating: authors can’t expect the bookstore to be responsible for the success of their event or book sales.

A bookstore is only going to reach those who shop there or actively come to author events. If sales for the author’s book haven’t been strong there it’s illogical to expect an enormous turn out of curious, new readers. Authors have to find ways into other parts of the community and encourage them over to the shop for the event.

That being said it is also important to not over-saturate a community with author visits. If you are signing at one shop one week and the shop close by the next you can expect unprofitable turnouts as well as perturbed booksellers at each.

How should authors follow up after an event?

I love receiving thank-you notes from authors after an event. Who wouldn’t? It’s smart PR on the author’s part. It not only keeps them in my memory bank, but also encourages me to work with them again in the future.

Rachel with Dan Wells, S.J. Kincaid, Veronica Roth & Aprilynne Pike

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Book Store Owners Mitch Kaplan and Betsy Burton from C-Span video library. Peek: "Discussion with booksellers, Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books (Coral Gables, Florida) & Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King's English (Salt Lake City, Utah)."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Coming this fall from Strange Chemistry
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Strange Chemistry: An Introduction to Angry Robot's New Young Adult Imprint by Alasdair Stuart from SFX. Peek: "I like my heroines to be strong, not meek, and I like my men to be interesting rather than just good-looking. If the characters are right in a manuscript, then the battle is half-won as far as I’m concerned." Source: Gwenda Bond.

Andrea Davis Pinkney: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: "...Vice President, Executive Editor at Scholastic. She has been named one of the '25 Most Influential Black Women in Business' by the Network Journal and is one of the '25 Most Influential People in our Children's Lives" cited by Children's Health Magazine.'"

Celebrating Diversity with Children's Books by Tessa Goldwasser from ALSC Blog. Peek: "I don’t know if books can save lives, but I do know that the right book, in the right hands, at the right time, can have a transformative effect on a person’s life. That’s why I am personally passionate about positive and realistic portrayals of the GLBT community in literature, especially literature for young people."

Character Entry Trait: Determined by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "Strong focus and ability to make decisions; having a set goal, objective or desire that is personal and important; being highly committed to an idea or belief."

New Stats Show Great Gains in Children's Fiction in 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "...the increase in overall sales made the children’s category the fastest growing segment last year, with total sales up 9.4%, to $3.3 billion."

Why Boys Don't Read Girls (Sometimes) from Shannon Hale.  Peek: "Without even meaning to perhaps, the adults in the boy’s life are nudging the boy away from 'girl' books to 'boy' books. When I go on tour and do school visits, sometimes the school will take the girls out of class for my assembly and not invite the boys."

Julie Anne Peters on LGBTQ and Controversial YA Literature from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "Feeling that you're normal, and that you have a community that loves and embraces you for who you are, provides the kind of emotional well-being that we all need to survive and thrive."

Synthesizing Feedback by Mary Kole from Peek: "Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason..."

Open Coop Day! Hen & ink: A Literary Studio, which is usually closed to submissions, will open to them from 1 a.m. Aug. 15 to 1 a.m. Aug. 16. Note: time zone is not specified (and this agency has a particularly international bent), so shoot for the middle of the window.

Revising with Anticipation by Marissa Burt from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "Sure, I didn’t mind tweaking things a bit, but I didn’t want to cut entire characters or rewrite scenes that I already liked just fine thank-you-very-much. Maybe it was fear of messing with a good thing.I think more likely it was – to say it bluntly – laziness."

Books Around the Table: A Potluck of Ideas from Four Children's Book Authors and Illustrators is a new blog from Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios and Julie Paschkis. Peek: "We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation."

Shine by Lauren Myracle (Amulet) is the winner of the 2012 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, given by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE. Peek: "Established in 2008 to honor the wishes of young adult author Amelia Eliz­a­beth Walden, the award allows for the sum of $5,000 to be pre­sented annu­ally to the author of a young adult title selected by the ALAN Amelia Eliz­a­beth Walden Book Award Com­mit­tee as demon­strat­ing a pos­i­tive approach to life, wide­spread teen appeal, and lit­er­ary merit." Source: Thunderchikin.

Call for Papers for Kidlitcon from Jen Robinson's Book Page. Peek: "This year the 6th annual Kidlitosphere Conference (aka KidLitCon) will be held in New York City on September 28th and 29th." See more information from A Fuse #8 Production.

The Value of Adversity by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "Saying something, seeing something through the unique lens of your own perceptions, isn't safe. Because once you do, once you share that with someone else, there will be plenty of people who will come along to tell you that you're wrong."

Writing Adaptations by Mary Kole from Peek: "Every time you do an adaptation, you have to add value to it."

From Blog to Book: Building an Online Platform by Erin Reel from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: "After approximately 18 months, Cheryl developed a worldwide loyal tribe of parents and grandparents of twins and multiples." Source: QueryTracker.netBlog.

Cynsational Giveaways
Unbreak My Heart Prize Package

The winner of an author-signed copy of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ty Templeton (Charlesbridge, 2012) was Frances in Illinois.

The winner of Goddess Girls Super Special: The Girl Games by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2012) has still not responded. If you entered, check your email!

This Week at Cynsations
GC movie news!

Austin Scene

Bookish highlights of the week included celebrating Robot Zombie Frankenstein! by Annette Simon (Candlewick, 2012) at BookPeople!

Annette models her new book!

Latter that day, I also greatly enjoyed a panel on children's-YA science fiction.

Featuring speakers P.J. Hoover, Beth Revis and K.A. Holt!

Austinites! Mark your calendars: Jo Whittemore's release party for D is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012) will be at 4 p.m. Aug. 12. at BookPeople. See more information.

More Personally

This week's highlight was a theatrical one! Last night I saw "Xanadu: The Musical" with fellow Austin authors Nikki Loftin, Salima Alikhan and our respective spouses at the Zach Theatre here in Austin. It was fantastically funny. The staging, lighting and costuming were amazing, and the music and acting was top notch. My highest recommendation!

Spring 2013 Sneak Previews by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Candlewick goes wild for Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a dark fantasy adventure for teens featuring werepossum Clyde and other characters...." Note: Feral Nights is the new title of the book previously tentatively titled "Smolder." It will be released in January 2013.

Gate Crashers Ask: Why SCBWI? from Ink & Angst: Writers of Various Nefarious Plots. See my response and many more! Don't miss part two.

Congratulations to Amy Rose Capetta (pictured below) on the sale of "Entangled" to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt! Congratulations to E. Kristin Anderson (pictured below) for signing with agent Christina Hogrebe! And congratulations to Alvina Ling on her recent marriage -- love the dress!

Amy Rose writes at my dining room table.

Personal Links:

About Greg Leitich Smith

Review: Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith from Joseph (6th Grade Student) from Book Trends. Peek: "...phenomenal and should be read by everybody."

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith by Stephanie from Kiss the Book. Peek: "Students that love dinosaurs will hands down love this book."

From Greg Leitich Smith:
E. Kristin Anderson with authors Debbie Gonzales & Jessica Lee Anderson

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Career Builder & Giveaway: Brent Hartinger

Brent on Mount Townsend (6500 feet in a day)
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Brent Hartinger is the author of a number of novels for children and teenagers, including three books in the Russel Middlebrook series: (1) Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003), (2) The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2005), and (3) Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (HarperCollins, 2007).

His other books include The Last Chance Texaco (HarperCollins, 2004); Grand & Humble (HarperCollins, 2006); Project Sweet Life (HarperCollins, 2009); and Shadow Walkers (Flux, 2011).

Brent’s upcoming books include The Elephant of Surprise (Buddha Kitty Books, 2012), the latest in the Russel Middlebrook series.

Brent’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Book Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).

Also a playwright and screenwriter, Brent’s many plays have been produced in dozens of theaters nationwide (twice in New York); his screenplays have won many awards, and he currently has several scripts under option. A film version of his novel, Geography Club, starring Scott Bakula and Nikki Blonsky, will be released next year.

Do you have a publishing strategy? If so, how has it worked and/or changed over time? If not, why not? And how has that worked for you?

That reminds me of a quote I loved from Jim Hensen, who created the Muppets and did the voice of Kermit. The interviewer said, "Well, obviously, you were born to do puppets." And Jim said (and I'm paraphrasing), "Oh, I don't feel that way at all. I think puppets were just the creative thing that I first found success in. But I'd like think I could've been successful in lots of different creative endeavors."

Maybe I'm thinking way too much of myself, but I absolutely believe that too -- that publishing books for teens just happened to be the first area where I found a little bit of success.

My publishing strategy has been my "life" strategy, which has been pretty much to try and do everything involving words and story. I've written novels, plays, screenplays, for adults, for kids, all in just about ever genre you can think of.

I also co-founded a entertainment website, and wrote and produced two web series.

Now I've been more successful in some of those things than others.

The movie version of my first novel, Geography Club, just wrapped (starring Scott Bakula, Nikki Blonsky, Ana Gasteyer, Marin Hinkle, and lots of teen actors from shows like "90210" and "Hannah Montana." How cool is this?!)

The website I co-founded,, was later acquired by Viacom in a big deal and went on to be pretty respected.

On the other hand, I have thought at one point, "I don't need this. Writing books is just not worth putting up with this. I'd rather run a bed-and-breakfast."

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

Oh, definitely all of the above! It's been a crazy crazy ride!

But here's the thing: if you're a writer and you're describing your career as just one of these things (and you're name isn't Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer), your career is probably only just starting out.

I think I've known hundreds of writers. I literally don't know any writer who's been at it a while who hasn't gone through a rough patch -- or two or three or four.

Anyone considering a career in writing, or anything in the arts, really needs to accept and internalize that it's really up and down, and it's really not "fair."

Now I know the world isn't fair, but publishing is particularly unfair. I know we all want to believe it's a big meritocracy, that cream always rises to the top, but so many things needs to go right for a book to break out.

It needs to find an agent and an editor who both believe in it, obviously. But then that editor needs to not get fired, so the book doesn't get orphaned (which has happened to me three times now). The buyer at Barnes and Noble needs to like it so it's in all the bookstores. Industry reviewers need to love it. It helps a lot if it's a "hot," buzz-y genre, so you have a shot at the New York Times and EW.

Oh, and it needs to have a cover that doesn't suck!

Writers don't control any of those things. And the thing is, it can have all those things and still tank. Because no one knows anything about what's going to hit and why. It's partly concept and execution, but it's also timing and, yes, dumb luck.

That said, I absolutely believe to the core of my being that the "best" writers, at least as defined by me, eventually do get published.

And these same writers tend to be the ones who have long and interesting careers.

I can think of three terrific examples of writers like this, all fantastic people, who are mutual friends of ours: Tim Wynne-Jones, Kathi Appelt, and, well, you, Cyn!

[Cyn: Me? I'm flattered to be mentioned in such great company.]

But I hope I'm not speaking out of turn when I say that we've all struggled with career highs and lows at some point.

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

Like most writers, I'm embarrassed reading my earlier novels, even my published ones. I'm just mortified! I think I'm so much better now, just night and day better.

That said, I acknowledge that more "experienced" writers like myself who bemoan their terrible earlier works need to keep in mind that sometimes freshness and naivete is very appealing. It can be more "authentic" or charming somehow. That's the kind of thing that can't be faked.

All art is a moment in time. My books are the very best I could do, exactly what I wanted to say (assuming I had a good editor who shared my vision), at the moment in time they're published.

How have you built an audience over time?

All the writing cliches are true, but the one I think is most true is that you should always treat everyone like you'd want to be treated.

Treat fans and novice writers like you wanted to be treated when you were a novice writer.

Treat all fellow writers, not just the really successful ones, like gold, like lightning could strike them and they could be the hottest writer alive at any minute, because that's exactly what could happen -- it does happen, all the time.

Although I must add this: I have an author friend, and we were sharing sales figures the other day (which is a very personal thing for authors! I'm more likely to tell people what kind of underwear I wear). Anyway, he mentioned a sales number, which was very respectable. And then he laughed and said, "But how is that possible?! I feel like I personally signed books for or sucked up to way more people than that!"

I busted up. I totally feel that way too! For all the talks I've given and personal emails I written and writers I've mentored, I feel like I should've sold millions of books. And I definitely haven't.

I can't possibly have spoken or written to every single person who's read my books. But it definitely feels like I have.

Anyway, as I said, most of the reason I do all this is because it's the right thing to do.

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

Like every author, I'm starting to wonder if the hassle of book tours (and, often, the expense, since publishers don't always pay) is worth it. Unlike your name is J.K. Rowling, it's increasingly difficult to draw a crowd at a bookstore -- and, let's face it, a lot of bookstores are becoming very, very discriminating. They often don't want you!

It's one thing to work a bookstore visit into a series of school visits or other events, but a dedicated tour? I think those things may be a thing of the past for most YA authors.

And of course, like every author, I'm interested in social media.

I'm also experimenting with indie publishing (also like every author in existence!). I got the rights back to the two sequels to Geography Club, The Order of the Poison Oak and Double Feature, and I published those as e-books.

And now I'm writing two more books to coincide with the release of the movie next year.

We'll see how it goes. I'm not sure I'd be doing it if it weren't for the publicity from the upcoming movie. Traditional publishing still has lots and lots of advantages, from my point of view. But so far, my experiment has been very, very worth my time.

I have just finished four projects, two novels and two screenplays, all very very different, that I think are all the absolute best writing I've ever done.

Two years from now, after at least some of them sell or not, I'll either be very, very happy, or very, very bitter!

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Awards, fame, jealousy, etc.


With Kathy Griffin at a party in Los Angeles.
Jealousy used to be a problem, but then I think it's a problem for almost every writer who isn't Suzanne Collins. Success sometimes seems so random.

It's really, really easy to forget that just by making your living as a writer, you've already won the lottery. And I've made my living at it, a pretty good living, for more than fifteen years.

And besides, since phenomenal, break-out success is random, it's only a matter of time until it happens to you! Right? Right?!

Come on, Cynthia. Tell me I'm right.

[Cyn: Yes, of course, Brent! Only a matter of time.]

What do you want to say to those one-book wonders or those that feel the market has left them behind?

Change your name.

Seriously. Why not? Submit under a different name.

I hate that so many editors and publishers have become "sales figures Nazis." Especially since a book's failure may have as much to do with the editor and the publisher as it does with the author.

So reboot and start again. Then when you're winning your Newbery or Printz Award, you can finally reveal your true identity! It'll be just like the end of "Tootsie."

But I'm actually serious about the name-change thing.

Why the hell not? They create the rules, but guess what?

Sometimes the rules aren't fair. So change them to your advantage.

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

Everyone always says, "My books are my babies! I can't choose between them!"

I can. I think Grand & Humble, my 2007 mystery, is a totally under-rated gem. Well, under-rated by some -- others rated it very highly.

I'm also pretty proud of the Russel Middlebrook series, especially the sequels.

Cyn, you know how hard sequels are.

[Cyn: Yes, I do!]

The last book, Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, tells the same story of the making of a zombie movie, but from two different points of view. They're totally different stories, and you don't know the "whole" story of what went on until you read both stories together. Hardest thing I've ever written. But I'm still extremely proud of it.

Wait. What? Is that it? No more questions? I was just getting started!

[Cyn: You'll have to come back soon!] 

Cynsational Notes

Yep, They're Making the "Geography Club" Movie by Brent Hartinger from Brent's Brain. Peek: " was all a little surreal. I watched the filming of one scene that had 1000 extras, and I thought, “You’re kidding! All this for a little book I wrote more than ten years ago?” I imagine it’s a little like what the pharaohs felt like when the the pyramids were being built..."

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

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of your choice of Brent Hartinger's novels! Author sponsored; eligibility: U.S. See the Russel Middlebrook series and Brent's mystery/thriller books.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Giveaway: Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker Prize Package

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a prize package celebrating the release of Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker (Bloomsbury, 2012). From the promotional copy: 

Sophomore year broke Clementine Williams’ heart. She fell for her best friend’s boyfriend and long story short: he’s excused, but Clem is vilified and she heads into summer with zero social life.

Enter her parents’ plan to spend the summer on their sailboat. Normally the idea of being stuck on a tiny boat with her parents and little sister would make Clem break out in hives, but floating away sounds pretty good right now.

Then she meets James at one of their first stops along the river. He and his dad are sailing for the summer and he’s just the distraction Clem needs. Can he break down Clem’s walls and heal her broken heart?

Told in alternating chapters that chronicle the year that broke Clem’s heart and the summer that healed it, Unbreak My Heart is a wonderful dual love story.

The giveaway package includes:
  • a signed copy of Unbreak My Heart;
  • a copy of Raising Eyebrows by Cameron Tuttle (a guide to your perfect brow);
  • Marie Natie natural lip gloss in Red;
  • Marie Natie natural lip gloss sample in Cotton Candy;
  • Bumble & Bumble Pin Tin (bobby pins);
  • Mad Grab Lip Balms;
  • and nail tattoos.
Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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In Memory: Margaret Mahy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Beloved New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy dies; Two-time Carnegie Medal winner by the Associated Press from The Washington Post. Peek: "She won the Carnegie Medal for outstanding children’s writing twice and in 2006 won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lifetime contribution to children’s literature. She was one of 20 living people to hold her country’s highest honor, the Order of New Zealand, and her books were translated into 15 languages."

Margaret Mahy's Intimate Legacy by Bronwyn Sell from The New Zealand Herald. Peek: "t was a testament to her ability to keep the child bubbling away inside her, even well into her 70s. Mahy always had a healthy appreciation for the ridiculous, as well as a musician's sense of sound and rhythm, and a sharp mind for running what was effectively an international export business."

What I Learned from Margaret Mahy from Blog Idle with Moata. Peek: "...what I really learned from that book, what Margaret Mahy was good enough to want to teach me, was that a part-Māori girl living in the Christchurch 'burbs could still be the heroine of her own story. She could be brave and scared but achieve extraordinary things."

Margaret Mahy (1936-2012) by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Note: a compilation to her contributions to the magazine.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway: Stacy DeKeyser on The Brixen Witch

(McElderry, 2012)
By Stacy DeKeyser
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

We all have our reasons for wanting to be published. Some of mine: For the pure joy of playing with words. To disprove those who’ve told me it can’t be done (i.e., to be honest, out of spite).

To share something profound about the human experience.

I’m not saying books can’t be fun. Thank goodness for Dr. Seuss and for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And yet, light, fluffy stories endure not because they’re light and fluffy, but because they are good stories.

The more I write, and read, the more I’ve come to appreciate the raw power of story. Story is ingrained in human culture, and hardwired into our brains. Beginning, middle, and end. Good against evil. Challenges presented to a hero we can root for; a hero who is, at the finish, something more than he was at the start.

Stories take life—which is random and often cruel—and give it order and meaning. To paraphrase Mark Twain, stories are better than real life because stories have to make sense. In stories, the hero wins the day. The bad guy gets his comeuppance. Those who deserve it live happily ever after.

Which brings us to The Pied Piper. Here is a tale of senseless, indescribable loss, with no happy ending in sight. So then why does it persist? Why is it part of our cherished canon of stories? Of children’s stories, no less?

Based on a true story, or so we’re told. And real life is often cruel.

But stories should make sense.

I decided to write my own version of this most sorrowful story. It didn’t need to be light and fluffy. But wasn’t there some way those kids could live happily ever after?

I read everything I could about the Pied Piper legend. (A favorite: Robert Browning’s poem, illustrated by Kate Greenaway.) I found lots of different versions, each ending more tragically than the last.

I was drawn to the versions where one child is left behind, for different reasons depending on the version. I wondered if maybe that child, at least, could live happily ever after.

And so I focused on him.

But little voices crept into my head. “You’re in way over your head, missy. Who are you to mess with a classic? Maybe all those people in the first paragraph are right: Maybe it can’t be done.”

The story stalled.

But, since we’ve established that I write partly out of spite, I tried not to listen to those voices. And here is where true, serendipitous inspiration comes in:

One day, while in the middle of Pied Piper procrastination (scanning old vacation photos), my eye caught something interesting.

Compare mountain in the photo to the one in the cover art.
A few of the photos—taken in an Alpine village, which happened to have its own legend of a mountain witch—reminded me a lot of Kate Greenaway’s Pied Piper illustrations.

That’s when everything clicked. The Pied Piper and the mountain witch invaded each other’s stories, and became The Brixen Witch.

It’s not a fluffy story. But it’s a lot of fun (I think). And (I hope) it honors the tradition that has come before.

Best of all, I found a way to give that most tragic of stories a happy ending.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of three signed copies of The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser (McElderry, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

So, you’re a writer. But are you living a writing kind of life? Are you writing every single day?

With all we have on our plates, many of us are missing the most essential tool for our creative survival: daily words. Where do you keep yours?

I’m a teacher by trade. My reluctant writers are those who don’t write fluently. They squirm in their seat and struggle with topics, quantities, and details. They fret over getting it right versus simply getting it down.

Recently, I’ve been wondering whether I fall into the reluctant writer category. The habit of generating the daily text I expect of my own students, significant or not, has gotten buried in my bustling life.

Habit is everything to a writer. Not just one who publishes, but one who simply writes. Habit is the process that builds fluency, and fluency shapes significance.

Well, if we want our ideas to spill over, if we want our fingers to fly when we hit the page, we have to prime the pump on a regular basis.

And so, my writer self looks to my teacher self and remembers: the most important tool for living a writing kind of life is a notebook.

It is, as author Ralph Fletcher describes, “A place where words can grow.”

Scrapbook, journal, diary, lifebook, laptop. A writer’s notebook may not be a novel idea to you, but I’d like you to consider a few craft books I use with students age eight to eighteen that provide a wealth of notebook strategies often overlooked by the adults who write for children.

Grab that notebook, organize it to your fancy, and get your hands on these powerful resources by a trio of incredible mentors: A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher (HarperCollins, 1996)(RF), Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook by Aimee Buckner (Stenhouse, 2005) (AB), and Just Write: Here's How! by Walter Dean Myers (Colins, 2012)(WDM).

Ways to Jump In

Often we just need a way to get writing already. So let’s dive in:

• Daily Pages (AB)

Aimee Buckner adopted this brilliant, no-brainer fluency strategy from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcher, 1992). Kick off your daily writing routine with a minimum of one page full of words, before you start any deep-thinking, story-related writing. All topics on deck. The purpose is to “take the trash out […] to clear the mind of clutter,” as Buckner describes, in order to get to our more creative selves.

• Write Small (RF)

Ralph Fletcher believes that the single most important lesson we can learn as a writer is to write small. I tell my students, “Notice what you notice.” Write down those hot thoughts before they cool off and drift away! Stories live within the details, and our daily world is packed with these tiny truths: a gesture, object, anecdote or snippet of sound. Fletcher likens the writer’s notebook to an incubator, “a protective place to keep your infant idea safe and warm, a place for it to grow while it is too young, too new, to survive on its own” (p. 32) Pay attention. Capture a handful of the most important sensory details each day. Crack open the adjectives and reveal the seed examples inside. Then wait…wait for imagination to take root.

• Fierce Wonderings (RF)(AB)

Think of how many questions you ponder over in a given day. How many thoughts, images, themes and memories haunt you, begging to be explored. Whatever you daydream fiercely about, big or small, serious or silly, is worth your time. Write those fierce wonderings down.

• Lists (RF)(AB)

Humans love to collect, categorize, classify. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Words, flavors, facts, places, books, titles, songs. Bests, worsts, firsts, lasts, deadlines, goals, dreams. So many lists! Hop to it!

• 3 x 3 (AB)

Buckner’s “Three Word Phrases in Three Minutes” exercise will get your fingers pumping out fresh ideas quickly. Choose a one-word topic; write it at the top of a new notebook page, set the timer, and go! (A particularly useful strategy for focusing on parts of a larger topic or issue with a character, setting or feeling, since it forces you to be selective with your words.)

• Memories (RF)

What moves you? What’s unforgettable? Search for memories that inspire you, that haunt you; that make you ask questions or make you uncomfortable. Fletcher wisely calls this, “writing that scrapes the heart,” and “writing-as-lifejacket: the writing you do because your heart will burst if you don’t write it” (p. 98). Writing from memory may mean connecting to your own history, facing hard truths, or exposing secrets. Then again, it may also mean collecting things: drawings, artifacts (Favorite pen. Date died: 5/15/92), photos, articles, and so on. Like day-to-day observations, memories fade; so make a habit of getting them on the page.

• Dialogue (RF)

Want to develop great character? Time to eavesdrop! Dialogue is one of the best ways to dive into writing. “Snatches of talk,” as Fletcher calls them, are packed with juicy details that represent the many ways we live and view the world. “Develop an ear for not just what’s said, but what someone is trying to say” (RF p. 62). Pay attention to gestures, expressions, body language, and all that is left unsaid. Notice rhythms and cadences, slang, and patterns of behavior that reflect a person’s character. Searching for more off-the-wall snippets? Catch what people say in their sleep!

• Sketches (WDM)

Walter Dean Myers offers some sage advice for sketching out characters and settings: find photographs and make a collage. Afterward, create detailed word portraits for each character or setting. Through these portraits, answer all the questions you have for that person or place. Remember: complex characters and multi-layered settings are memorable.

• Research & Inspiration (RF) (WDM)

Using part of your Writer’s Notebook to collect inspiring relics and compelling research can lead to some incredible storytelling. Not only that, but rereading these nuggets can keep you going when your energy or direction falters. Nowadays, it’s easy to take a screenshot on your computer or phone and print or send the clip to email, Evernote or Scrivener, for example. This is often the way I collect ideas, dialogue, scene openers and endings, and passages that just knock me out. Research makes our stories authentic. So go ahead: be a word hoarder! Seek out material that will make your stories authentic (WDM) and “find writing that inspires you to grow into the kind of writer you hope to be” (RF p. 119)

Reading Like a Writer

As writers, we read first for pleasure and second to hone our craft. Next time you have a great book in hand, try these quick techniques, which are some of my favorites to use in the classroom:

• Rereading (RF)(AB)

Both Buckner and Fletcher recommend reading through your notebook often and carefully to “dig out the crystals” that, once polished, will spark original writing. Star it, circle it, highlight it, flag it. Eventually, lift each of those special lines and rewrite them on their own notebook page. Now write.

• Writing Off Literature (AB)

Buckner says it perfectly: “Stories inspire stories.” Read through a poem, passage or chapter once just to enjoy it, to be affected by it, and the second time to connect to the story with your own words. Lift a line or an entire scene. Shoot for at least twenty minutes. Go all stream-of-consciousness! Who knows where things might lead!

• Writing From a Word (AB)

Similar to the idea above, only this time, immerse your self in just one word. Start with a noun. Next time a verb, an adjective, adverb, and so on. Explore the word’s sound, its meaning, its subtext, and the stories implicit within its letters.

• Try 10 (AB)

Try Ten is a handy revision strategy for leads, endings, transitions, verbs, dialogue, metaphors, and other short snippets of your work. It’s pretty self-explanatory: write your piece in question ten different ways. Vary the structure, word choice, length; you name it. Every sentence deserves our attention, and often our most creative ideas for a line are buried underneath the more obvious first five on the list. Ten is the magic number. Try it for yourself.

• Poetry & Wordplay (RF)

Poems are magical fruit to the parched writer: brief, intense, bold, intimate, satiating. Paste poems that pack a punch into your notebook and annotate them for the images they evoke, for the rhythms, cadences, and sounds they carry. Now imitate the poem. Experiment! Lose and find yourself in wordplay.

“Notebooks are…well, it’s like you have sparks from a campfire that could start a fire. They haven’t yet, but they could at any time” -- Michael Ciccone, first grade

Final Thoughts

To really understand the power of a writer’s notebook, you have to give yourself permission to experience it completely. Yes, we are busy, so let’s be smart about how we invest our time. Slow is fast. Fast is slow.

While a writer’s notebook may not seem urgent compared to all the other pressing matters in our lives, it is when you consider the magnitude of value it brings to our craft and our soul. A notebook is a foundational element to living a writerly life every single day. It’s our meditative practice, our wellspring of chi.

I urge you to re-prioritize your schedule to fit a writer’s notebook of any kind into your daily blueprint.

Cynsational Notes

Fellow VCFA alumna Cindy Faughnan with Vanessa
Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures summer camp. She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR, shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often. Vanessa has written a middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email ( Visit Vanessa online at

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Guest Post: Ed Briant on Hitler, Miss McNally & Stephen King

By Ed Briant
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations 

When I was a kid living in London we used to have this Scottish neighbor lady called Miss McNally.

She’d survived being a nurse in World War One and Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in World War Two, but when I knew her she was in her mid-eighties, arthritis was getting the better of her. In spite of that she used to have a saying:

“Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

Being a bit of a scallywag I thought this was quite funny. To my un-empathetic eyes she was clearly getting worse if anything.

I used to try to avoid her, but one day she cornered me in the stairwell. She asked me if I knew why the north side of our street was pretty Victorian row houses, and the south side was all ugly, modern buildings.

I told her I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, while I glanced around for an escape route.

She told me that one sunny spring afternoon in 1945 a German V2 rocket had landed across the road, obliterating all the buildings, and everybody in the buildings, which was mostly women and children as all the men were either in the military or at work. She’d only survived because at the time the missile struck she’d been taking a stroll on Primrose Hill, a nearby park.

All she remembered was that one moment she was walking, and the next, she was flat on her face, surrounded by brown smoke. It wasn’t her first near miss with a Nazi bomb, but this one was the closest and the biggest.

She reckoned she was lucky the war finished a couple of months later, because she was certain the next one had her name on it.

I had to laugh. I had a mental image of a big, fat bomb with the words “Miss McNally” daubed on the sides in Gothic script, and I began to have a little more respect for her, but she wasn’t finished with me yet.

"Nowhere Man" by Ed Briant, used with permission.

She told me I wasn’t very good with words and handed me a stack of cryptic crossword puzzles she’d clipped out of the Guardian newspaper. She then told me to fill out as many of the answers as I could, and bring them back to her the following week.

I spent the next seven days racking my brains, but I could barely fill in more than one or two of the clues. I went back to see Miss McNally. Even the one or two clues I’d managed were wrong.

She then showed me that day’s crossword. It was all filled out. Every single clue, and the answers would not be published until the next day. She told me it had taken her ten years of doing the crossword every day before she finally finished one. Now she finished them regularly, but it took her all day. Her next goal was to finish one by lunchtime.
And that was when she told me her mantra:

“Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

Over the next few months, she coached me until I could do about a quarter of the clues in the Guardian crossword. In return I did a little grocery-shopping for her and a little furniture moving. After that we moved to London’s East End, where the rents were cheaper, and I lost touch with Miss McNally, but her mantra has always stayed with me.

Recently I Googled Miss McNally’s mantra. It turns out it originated in the early twentieth century by the French psychologist, Émile Coué. Coué believed that if you repeated the mantra every morning and every evening, then you really would improve. I can’t guarantee that it works, but it could be worth a try.

Self-improvement isn’t difficult when you’re a kid. All you have to is eat, and you’ll get bigger. It’s not hard in your teens, and it’s still pretty easy when you’re in your twenties, but by the time you get into your thirties it gets a lot harder.

The only way you can really improve yourself in mid-life is to set yourself new challenges.

The good news is that if you’re involved in type of creative activity then setting new challenges should be a breeze, especially so if you’re a writer.

With the publication of my latest YA novel I Am (Not) the Walrus (Flux, 2012), I have to ask myself if it’s better than my previous novel, Choppy-Socky Blues (Flux, 2010).

Regardless of what the critics say, and regardless of how many copies are sold, do I, myself, think it’s a better book and, if so, then why?

I do think it’s better. I tend to think of Choppy-Socky Blues as a slice-of-life confessional. It has its good qualities in that it is funny, but it’s light on plot and secondary-character development. Looking back it’s also probably a little too anchored to autobiography for its own good.

I Am (Not) the Walrus on the other hand does have plenty of plot. It has quirky secondary characters, and it has suspense. The humor is still there, but it takes a back seat to the plot. Plus, it’s autobiographical, but only as much as it needs to be. Finally, the subject matter is way closer to my heart.
  1. An improvement, at least in my opinion, but what challenges am I going to take on in my next book?
  2. I want to write from the point of view of a character who isn’t remotely like myself.
  3. I want to write dialogue scenes between more than two characters.
  4. I want to write in past tense, which isn’t as easy as it looks if you’re used to writing in present tense. One day I’ll try third person, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet.

Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (Simon & Schuster), with the intent of figuring out how to write scenes that are so suspenseful it’s impossible to put the book down.

I’ll see how things turn out. Right now I have to go back to reading Stephen King.

"Paperback Writer" by Ed Briant; used with permission

Cynsational Notes

Ed Briant grew up in Brighton, England, but now lives just outside Philadelphia, where he writes, illustrates, and creates the popular comic strip "Tales from the Slush Pile" (scroll to end of page). He has two daughters, teaches creative writing, and plays the alto saxophone (quite badly).

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