Friday, April 04, 2014

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Embrace the Struggles of Writing by Elisa Ludwig from Adventures in YA Writing. Peek: "No one is ever going to come to me and say, 'Awesome. You did it. You can go home now.' Which means that as long as I stay with this, I’m going to have to wrestle with doubts."

Writing Humor by Yahong Chi from Project Mayhem. Peek: "Because the characters' experience is, to a certain extent, removed from the reader's experience, you'll often find that readers are laughing when characters aren't." See also "Star Wars" Writing Lesson: Adding Humor to Life or Death Situations from Project Mayhem.

Why Are Booksellers Afraid of Children's Poetry? by Mandy Coe from The Guardian. Peek: "No one doubts that a market for children's poetry exists. Children relish it, parents appreciate its accessibility and infinite re-readability, and teachers who've unlocked its potential in the classroom swear by it." See also On Language--Energy by Naomi Shihab Nye from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All the Words!

Dare I Tell an Agent to Hold That Offer? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: "Authors are emotionally invested in their work and can lose sight of representation being a business partnership."

10 Tips About Process by Brunonia Barry from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA by Zoraida Córdova from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: "Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. Read. I to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. See also White with Envy by Celeste Lim from CBC Diversity and Diverse Poetry Novels from Rich in Color. Note: scroll for summaries.

What Do Agents Like to See When They Google Writers? from Carly Waters, Literary Agent. Peek: "Blog posts that aren't discussing the submission process in too much detail."

Talent & Skills Entry: Archery by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "focus, perfectionism, self-controlled, studious, disciplined, patience, resourceful, observant, tenacious..."

National Poetry Month Kidlitosphere Events by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup.See also Introducing Students to NCTE's Notable Poetry Titles.

Yes, Book Editors Edit by Barry Harbaugh from The New Yorker. Peek: "In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is—a business, in other words, reliant on the development of talent—the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story."

A Shameless Plea for More Gender Diversity on Middle Grade Author Panels by Caroline Carlson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel."

My Take on John Green, the YA World and the New York Times Bestselling List from Laurie Halse Anderson. Peek: "He is not responsible for the sudden dudification of the NYT Bestseller list, nor is it his responsibility to somehow magically fix it. The social problems and pressures that have created this mess are much older and deeper than any one person can repair. However - we..."

Presenting to School Students: Top Tips by Juliet Marillier from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I let students know in advance that I’d be giving away copies of my books to those who asked the most interesting questions."

Spelling Tip: there is no apostrophe in Publishers Weekly.

Looking for a Publishing Job? Lee & Low is hiring a marketing/publicity assistant, educational sales associate and a marketing/publicity intern for summer 2014.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Revisions of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series) still continue! But at least we've shifted from re-envision mode to polish mode! That's progress, right? Right?

More about the TLA Conference!
Next week will you be at the Texas Library Association Conference in San Antonio or the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California? If so, please come see me! Details are below under Cynsational Events.

The post lingering on my mid this week is Laurie Halse Anderson's on John Green, YA Books and Bestsellers. I appreciate the shout out (thanks, Laurie!), but what I loved most about it was the call to action. Also, in case I haven't mentioned it, I want to be Laurie when I grow up.

On a related note, I'm pondering Keeping It Real by Soho Press editor Dan Ehrenhaft from CBC Diversity. Peek: "Yes! It’s true. Overseas, The Market welcomes realistic YA fiction, as well. There is one caveat: As long as that reality is pretty much confined to white people." Note: As someone who writes both realism and fantasy, I'm happy to see realism getting more love, but the fact that it's for certain heroes only does concern me.

What else? I was thrilled this week when Donna Gephart informed me that I'm the author of the all-time highest traffic post at her blog, Wild About Words. See Promote Your Book Like a Pro -- Cynthia Leitich Smith -- Top 6 1/2 List!

Likewise, I'm thinking about Joe McGee's Heroes Needed: No Cape Required and Paul Greci's From Concept to Contract.

I'm also honored to have been quoted in "Stories in Art: Picture Books and Graphic Novels" by Katherine Swarts, which appears in Writers Guide to 2014. See cover above.

E-volt is having a sale on Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) for $1.99 and Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, $2.99--discount prices will hold through April! Listen to an audio sample of Feral Nights and read a sample of Eternal. Check out what I didn't plan about the Feral series from YA Series Insider.

Reminder to Central Texans! Liz Garton Scanlon will sign The Good-Pie Party, illustrated by Kady McDonald Denton (Arthur A. Levine Books) at 2 p.m. April 5 at BookPeople.

Congratulations to Austin cakelustrator Akiko White on signing with Rising Bear Literary Agency!

Congratulations to fellow Austin author K.A. Holt on the sale of "Red Moon Rising" to Karen Wojtyla at McElderry (by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency)!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Meet Cynthia Leitich Smith in the author signing area from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. April 9 at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. Greg Leitich Smith will be signing at that same time and date in Booth 1443 (Book Festivals of Texas). See the complete author signing listings. See also conference signings by Texas authors.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith, along with Soman Chainani, Margaret Stohl, Laini Taylor, and moderator John Corey Whaley for "Young Adult Fantasy: The Real & the Unreal" (conversation 1095) in the Norris Theater at 4:30 p.m. (signing to follow) April 12 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California.

Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new middle grade novels at 2 p.m. June 24 at BookPeople in Austin.

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award. See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference.

Get Ready to Rock the Drop on Teen Literature Day (April 17) with readergirlz.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Guest Post: Lisa Doan on Writing Humor: When Worlds Collide…

Lisa scuba diving.
By Lisa Doan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The phrase ‘When Worlds Collide’ sounds dramatically epic – something that should come with its own background music. Maybe a YA dystopian. Or a tragically doomed romance. Or a tragically doomed romance in a YA dystopian.

But for my purposes, When Worlds Collide is the underpinning of character-driven humor.

Each sentence uttered by every person on this planet is a tiny Morse code flag signaling a complicated internal world that has been carefully built. Facts supporting the world are filed away, facts challenging the world are rationalized or discarded.

This is the nature of the beast, and the beast is us.

Humor writers create larger-than-life internal worlds and then crash them into each other.

Mangrove Bight House - where Lisa lived in the Caribbean.
I’m always surprised when somebody tells me they can’t write humor. I have heard this from some of the funniest people I know.

Mainly I’m surprised because it’s not true.

We all watch When Worlds Collide in our own lives every time we think something like:

When (person I know) did/said (bizarre thing), I couldn’t imagine what (person I know) was thinking.

You know you can fill in the blanks to that sentence.

As humor writers, we can imagine what (person I know) was thinking - we built the internal world that led to the thinking.

And because of that, we can construct future (bizarre thing) did/saids that will be consistent with the character’s internal world, while at the same time inconsistent with societal norms.

One of the most effective vehicles to collide worlds is dialogue in which it is clear that multiple characters are coming at a situation from entirely different directions.

No explaining, no describing, no setting up – just let the characters have at it.

In The Berenson Schemes first book, Jack the Castaway (Darby Creek, 2014), when Jack’s parents have done something particularly egregious in Jack’s eyes, they often conclude with something along the lines of, “Now don’t thank us, son. We were happy to do it.”

Place those larger-than-life internal worlds in a plot that lives in its own unique world by skewing or super-sizing a truth about the real world. The Berenson Schemes series idea occurred to me after I heard about “helicopter parents.”

I thought, what about a helicopter kid who is saddled with very un-helicoptery parents? They could lose him.

No, strike that. They could lose him in foreign countries.

No, strike that. They could lose him in the wilderness in foreign countries. There we go.

One last thing I should mention about preparing to collide some worlds - look fear of failure in the eye and make it blink first. If it doesn’t blink, hit it over the head with a mallet or kitchen appliance - whatever is handy.

Fear produces tepid and time-worn jokes. Fear causes writers to water down an original idea.

Readers can smell fear.

And anyway, there’s nothing to be afraid of. You would never be that (person other people know) that did/said (bizarre thing), that other people couldn’t imagine what (that person who may or may not be you) was thinking. Right? ‘Cause I’m pretty confident that I’m never that person.

Aren’t you?

Beach Roatan in front of Lisa's Caribbean's house.
Cynsational Notes

Learn more about The Berenson Schemes Book 2, Jack and the Wild Life, and Book 3 (title to be determined).

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Book Trailers: Water Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Laura Purdie Salas on the release of Water Can Be, illustrated by Violeta Dabija (Millbrook, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Water can be a...

• Thirst quencher
• Kid drencher
• Cloud fluffer
• Fire snuffer

Find out about the many roles water plays in this poetic exploration of water throughout the year.

Water Can Be has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. See CSS Reading Guide and Teacher's Guide. See more tie-in resources.

Laura and Lisa Bullard have also released a new e-book, Getting Published: How to Access Editors (A Children's Writer Insider Guide from Mentors for Rent).

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

New Voice: Crystal Chan on Bird

Curriculum Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Crystal Chan is the first-time author of Bird (Atheneum, 2014). From the promotional copy:

It’s only natural to have silence and secrets in your family when you’re born on the same day that your brother died. At least, that’s sure what it seems like for twelve-year old Jewel.

Add to that the fact that you’re the only mixed-race family in your rural Iowan town, and well, life can get kind of lonely sometimes. But when a boy named John moves into her town, his courage and charisma immediately stand out and the two kids instantly click.

John’s presence, however, has an unsettling effect on her family. As the thick layers of silence in her family begin to unravel, Jewel finds that her life is not as stable nor her family’s expectations as certain as she once thought. Suddenly, Jewel needs to choose whether to stay loyal to the person her family wants her to be or to claim her own identity, no matter the cost.

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

I needed to do tons of research for Bird. Jewel, the protagonist, is mixed race - Jamaican, Mexican, and white - and she wants to be a geologist when she grows up. Her sidekick, John, is a transracial adoptee (black adopted into a white family) and wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

Find Crystal on Facebook.
I'm mixed race (Chinese-White), but not Jewel's mix: I could speak to the mixed-race experience but needed to familiarize myself with the cultures she dealt with. I'm not an adoptee. And I'm awful at science. Clearly, a lot of work needed to be done.

I started off by learning as much as I could about Jamaica. I went onto Jamaican forums, news websites, and anything that gave me an "in" on Jamaican culture. I also picked up a college text on the various religions in Jamaica and paired that with online research.

The funny thing is, even though I live in Chicago and there are a lot of Jamaicans here, I didn't meet a lot of people who wanted to be interviewed. (I even called the Jamaican embassy in desperation!)

A friend of mine said he knew a lot of Haitians in the area; if I change her race, I'd have a big pool of interviewees. A generous offer, which I turned down - I just knew she was part Jamaican. I even went to a meetup group where I knew the leader was Jamaican-American and got my first interview by attending her meetup group.

It was hard. I did find one other person willing to be interviewed, and I had two Jamaican-Americans read the manuscript cover to cover to give their impressions. That made a big difference for me: I felt I could relax a little after that.

Being mixed race, I often find myself misrepresented, and I want to really make sure that what I create is the most respectful and authentic work I can make. No short cuts.

Dad from Hong Kong
Polish-American mom from Wisconsin
For the transracial adoptee part, I hopped onto a number of Korean adoptee blogs.

I was surprised at the level of anger I found among adoptees.

And confusion.

And isolation.

Beyond the blogs, there was this essay I read: "Raised by White People" by Gina Miranda Samuels, published by the University of Chicago.

It really hit home for me that a lot of the identity issues of adoptees and mixed-race people are quite similar.

I also picked up some books written adult adoptees giving advice to potential adopting parents.

As for the science, I started off with a college geology textbook on Iowa, coupled with a lot of online research - Iowa DNR, for instance - on the geological history of Iowa.

I also looked at a lot of different minerals and gemstones, as that would be Jewel's fodder for how she describes her world ("his face turned to onyx").

With the astronomy, I picked up Astronomy for Dummies by Stephan Maran (For Dummies, 2010), went onto NASA's and Hubble's websites, browsed around there.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

I was invited to a private, full-manuscript critique at a writer's house: it was 10 or so of us, our manuscripts, and an editor, Namrata Tripathi, for a weekend. It was really cool, and we prepared/ate meals together, etc.

I was working on my second manuscript at the time but didn't have it finished, just 50 pages of a work in progress (WIP), but I submitted it anyway and hoped she liked it.

Well, a couple months later my agent and I were submitting my polished, fine-tuned manuscript (the original, not the WIP), and we decided to add Namrata to the submission list.

Crystal with Jia-You, also called Juanita
Well, imagine our surprise when she comes back and says: "Thanks, but no thanks - but I want to purchase that first 50 pages I read at that weekend some months ago - I can't stop thinking about it!"

So my agent and I had some pretty big conversations, decided to stop our submission with the first manuscript, and sold the partial as a debut.

I was a little scared - I mean, what if she doesn't like the ending? What if I choke?

Namrata was very clear that she didn't want to interfere with my writing process - unless something disastrous happened, she only wanted to see the manuscript. after the first full draft. Which she did.

And then she was with me for the subsequent drafts and through publication.

Cynsational Notes

Crystal's FAQ, mixed-race links, and recommended books about mixed-race experiences. See also an interview with Crystal from Crazy QuiltEdit. Peek: "Diversity is hard work, plain and simple, and it means giving up a bit of your defined world (your boundaries!) to be able to let others in, to see the 'other' as just as human as you are."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest Post: Eric Pinder on The X Files: Why Alphabet Books Are Not as Easy as ABC

Photograph by Katie Koster
By Eric Pinder
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

A teacher once learned the hard way not to tell his college class to write a children’s book without specifying a genre and topic. He anticipated a wonderful mix of fractured fairy tales, rhyming romps, and heroes’ journeys.

A week later, almost the entire the class turned in alphabet books instead.

“It looked easy,” they explained.

The teacher, of course, was me, and I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Alphabet books do appear as easy as ABC. A constant cast of 26 characters and a familiar, orderly structure provides writers with a ready-made template, which gives the false impression that alphabet books are the literary equivalent of connect-the-dots: A is for alphabet; E is for easy; Q is for quick.

The sad truth is that the very same template that makes alphabet books so easy is to write is precisely what makes them so challenging to write well.

Ask a hundred people to complete a connect-the-dots picture, and the result always looks much the same. But an alphabet book needs to be distinct and unique, or else there would never be a need to publish new alphabet books, and we writers would never get paid.

How’s a writer supposed to be original and, more importantly, earn enough to eat when we’re all stuck using the same 26 characters?

26 characters for your perusal

I learned the answer to that question when a helpful librarian brought me an Everest-sized pile of alphabet books. I almost needed bottled oxygen to reach the top of the stack. The expedition to the top of that mountain of books taught me a lot about what works in alphabet stories, and what doesn't.

Climbing back down, I eagerly set out to write one of my own.

Exactly 24/26ths of the way through my plot, my pen faltered.

What the heck was I supposed to do with the X?

Cat in the Clouds (The History Press, 2009)
The biggest hurdle for writers of alphabet books, but also the greatest opportunity for originality, is the letter X. Discerning book buyers often flip right to the last few pages to see how the writer has handled the alphabet’s most troublesome letter. Fail to impress the bookstore browser with letter X, and the book gets returned to the shelf, and the starving writer's belly keeps grumbling.

Speaking of hunger pangs, the very first English language alphabet book, The Tragical Death of An Apple Pie, circa 1840 ends in a rush, with four letters crowded onto the last page: “X, Y, Z and & — they wished for a piece in hand.”

What a cheat! But a clever cheat. The sudden rhyme on the final page, linking “hand” with “ampersand,” provides a lyrical flourish and a satisfying conclusion, like the crashing of chords at the end of a song. At least the writer didn’t resort to using The Dreaded Xylophone.

The book skips several other letters altogether, a decision that may have freed the writer from thinking up six more apple-related words, but which also limits the book’s educational value.

An incomplete alphabet is not an option in today’s competitive market . . . unless, like Mike Lester in A is for Salad (Grosset & Dunlap, 2000), you make the omissions funny.

(You can break a lot of rules if you make readers laugh.)

In A is for Salad, Mike Lester declares that “X and Y are bad letters. Never use them.” An illustration shows two men carrying off the letters in stinky garbage cans.

The lack of familiar, child-friendly X-words other than the overused "xylophone" is enough to make many writers agree.

Lester's joke works because it doesn't come out of the blue. The book starts with silliness and a twisting of expectations right on page one, with a picture of an alligator eating a salad. So a child listening to the book already anticipates humor.

For children too young to be in on the joke, Lester’s technique plays into the collaborative, interactive, conversational nature of picture books. The image prompts questions from the child listener, and invites the adult reader to explain that the letter A is really for alligator.

By the time the reader reaches letter X, the garbage pail gag provides a change of pace, a funny, welcome break from the expected “A is for” sentence structure.

Lisa Campbell Ernst’s The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book (Simon & Schuster, 2004) prompts even more child-parent collaboration, in a tactile way.

Rotate the book on all four sides, and each letter, viewed sideways and upside down, looks like three different objects. The letter A morphs into a bird's beak and an ice-cream cone.

Best of all, Ernst cleverly sidesteps the usual problem with X. No need to delve into the dictionary for child-friendly X words or resort to the xylophone cliché. Instead, she has an easier task: name some everyday objects that just happen to look like the letter X.

While many alphabet books are “list books,” others find originality by telling a simple, unique story.

In Albert’s Alphabet by Leslie Tryon (Aladdin, 1994), the school carpenter gets a note from the principal instructing him to build an alphabet-themed walking path on the playground by the end of the day. The time crunch and the worries about whether Albert has enough material to finish his task give the story momentum, and the troublesome X doesn't appear in the text at all. Instead, X is pushed off into the illustrations, where it shows up as a waterwheel that Albert has constructed out of pipes.

Thanks to some alphabet-related carpentry and masonry and a simple plot, the writer is spared the need to rummage through volume X of the encyclopedia for useful words.

There are only so many ways to get from A to Z, and on every path, the letter X is a hurdle that can't be avoided. Innovation, turning the alphabet book format on its head—literally, in the case of Lisa Campbell Ernst—is a must if writers hope to create unique, twenty-first century alphabet books that distinguish themselves from the pack. The first person to use a xylophone in an alphabet picture book should have been the last.

Cynsational Notes

Originally published in May 2012, this post is the fourth most popular overall in the 10-year history of Cynsations. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn's revision deadline.

Don't miss Eric's picture book, If All the Animals Came Inside, illustrated by Marc Brown (Little, Brown, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The walls would tremble. 
The dishes would break. 
Oh, what a terrible mess
we would make!

If all the animals came inside, bears would run down the stairs, kangaroos would bounce on the couch, and hippos would play hide-and-seek through the halls! Join one family's wild romp as animals of all shapes and sizes burst through the front door and make themselves right at home.

Extraordinary collage artwork from beloved illustrator Marc Brown (creator of the bestselling Arthur book and TV series) pairs with Eric Pinder’s hilarious rhyming verse to make this the perfect picture book to read aloud again and again.
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