Saturday, August 11, 2012

Career Builder & Giveaway: Kimberly Willis Holt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

"You can have one year off to write." That's what Kimberly Willis Holt's husband told her back in June 1994. She didn't own a computer so she began to write on yellow legal pads.

Since then she's written seventeen books, and won many awards and honors, including the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. She's never gone back to a traditional job.

Kimberly is a former Navy Brat who lived around the world, but always considered herself a southerner. She's proud of her Louisiana roots and attended the University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University. The little town of Forest Hill where her parents grew up is reflected in several of her books. She's been a Texan for the last thirty years, and her book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is set in the Texas Panhandle.

Somewhere along the way, she bought a computer.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

When my first book, My Louisiana Sky was six months from publication, I started to plan my book tour. I used most of my small advance to finance my travel and my promotional information.

The memories I treasure the most about that first tour were the encounters with the people who supported an unknown author. Lois Grant and Beth Vandersteen of Rapides Parish Library in Louisiana were the first two people to respond enthusiastically to my request to speak. They hosted two receptions for me, one at the main library in Alexandria and one at the small branch in Lecompte near my grandparents' homes.

They weren't the only supportive ones. Jean Dayton, the Community Relations Manager of the Shreveport Barnes and Noble (now a successful booking agent) went beyond the call of duty. She got me in touch with a local book reviewer. The review was in the Sunday paper right before my signing. I had thirty people show up. That's a big turnout for an unknown writer whose first book has barely hit the bookshelves.

Another CRM in Baton Rouge was embarrassed when no one showed up. He even bought a book for a little girl who wandered over to get a cookie from the signing area. A few years later he left the store and worked for the Louisiana Book Festival. He booked me twice for that event.

Also a couple of months before I went on tour, I received a call from a sales rep who represented Holt books. Her name was Kathy Patrick. She is a Book Woman extraordinaire. (She now owns Beauty and the Book, a bookstore beauty shop, and is the founder of the famous Pulpwood Queens, the largest book club in the U.S.)

Kathy had read an advance copy of My Louisiana Sky, and loved it. She wanted to know if my publisher was sending me on tour. I told her, "No, but I'm sending me on tour." She lived in Jefferson, Texas and asked if I would start my tour there. I agreed. After all, Jefferson is on the way to Louisiana.

She lined up a couple of book signings at two of her accounts and an event at her library. When she heard me speak, she said, "We need to get you at Mid-South." Mid-South was a regional booksellers conference. That autumn I was in New Orleans speaking to booksellers who became early supporters of my work. Kathy opened a lot of doors for me.

On that first tour, I spoke free at a lot of schools, I lined up signings in every major Louisiana city. Most of those had few or no sales, but I felt gratitude for the people who ordered my book and allowed me to sit in their store. I have a hunch they hand sold my books after I left, because my books ended up in their other stores around the country.

If I could offer advice to that new voice, it would be to stay the course and appreciate every minute, good and bad. When I returned home from the tour, I learned that my book won a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor and that my book had been optioned for a movie.

Even if those things hadn't happened, I still planted a lot of seeds. And best of all I met wonderful people and got to share the excitement with my three living grandparents.

Stay the course. Good things will happen.

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?

I've always believed in writing from the heart. Over the years, I've observed other writers trying to chase the market, but I can't write like that. There has to be joy in the journey.

Having said that, I've made some risky choices. When I began, I was quickly titled a southern middle grade author. And because two of my early books had some nice success, that seemed to seal the deal.

Then I wrote a Y.A. book set on Guam and a short story collection. I wrote picture books. I wrote a series for young readers.

It seems a lot of my early readers didn't know what to think about that.

I've probably received an F in branding myself. But to me, I feel like I've had one heck of a ride. I've always written the stories I cared about. And that's the way I plan to do it for the rest of my life. Maybe not the smartest publishing move, but one I accept wholeheartedly.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

A couple of years ago, I experienced a big disappointment. I had struggled for seven years with a book that when I finished it, felt proud of. To me, The Water Seeker is my best work.

A month before the book debuted, I learned that most booksellers weren't interested in selling the story. It crushed me. I couldn't write. What is the point, I thought, if my best work isn't appreciated?

I didn't write for a year and half. Oh, I fine-tuned a book from my series, but I wasn't inspired to write anything new.

Then I decided to go to my grandfather's home and stay tucked away for a few weeks. The only things I packed were my clothes, an idea for a story, and the trace of a character's voice. I just had to find the courage to pick up my pen, again.

The house became my muse. Everywhere I turned, I bumped into my ancestors. When I looked out the window at my grandfather's camellia gardens, and boiled pasta on the same stove my grandmother had made chicken and dumplings on, I remembered I was born into a storytelling family. And that is a gift. I owe it to them to carry on.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

You can study the market all you want. You can add zillions of friends on social media sites and plan out a top-knotch marketing plan. Marketing is important, but nothing trumps a good book. Tell a good story. Tell it the best way you can. Readers will find it.

Cynsational Notes

Visit more stops on Kimberly's Piper Reed, Forever Friend blog tour!

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 for a chance to win a signed hardback copy of Piper Reed, Forever Friend (2012), a signed paperback copy of Piper Reed, Navy Brat (2011), and a signed paperback copy of Piper Reed, Rodeo Star (2011), all written by Kimberly Willis Holt and published by Henry Holt.

From the promotional copy of Piper Reed, Forever Friend:

Piper is excited to move to a new state and catch up with old friends. But the move doesn’t go as smoothly as she expected: Piper has trouble feeling accepted in her new surroundings. 

But then she meets Arizona Smiley. Arizona is an avid stamp collector and bowls in a league. Piper is intrigued by Arizona’s originality and before long, she wins Arizona’s affections, and the two become great friends. 

This move turns out to be the best one yet, and Piper is eager to spread her trademark “Get Off the Bus” catchphrase once again.

Author sponsored, eligibility: North America.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Anne Marie Pace on the release of Vamperina Ballerina, illustrated by LeUyen Pham  (Hyperion, 2012). From the promotional copy: "More than anything Vampirina wants to be a ballerina, and she tells you just how to manage those pesky vampire-related stumbling blocks." See the teachers guide.

Literary Agent Joseph Monti: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: "I...acquired a few novels, one was largely about a brown boy and a brown girl, a terrible father, and a helpful monster, in a dystopian world. Science fiction, with brown protagonists. The narrative of publishing will tell you a book like this can't succeed. But..."

A Plot Excuse to Watch Out For - But Then Where Would Have Been My Novel? by Cheryl Klein from Brooklyn Arden. Peek: "...when writers have had to contrive a particular set of circumstances or made a character act in an out-of-character or frankly stupid way in order to keep the novel going or accomplish a particular plot point."

Why Writers Need to Separate Ourselves from Our Work and Other People's Opinions of It from Jan Fields. Peek: "...very few people in the publishing process (other than you) are going to equate you with the work you produce. To most people, your story, your article or your book is a product to be examined, considered and possibly bought."

Wordcraft Circle Annual Awards and Honors 2012 from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Cheers to Tim Tingle, author of Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey From Darkness Into Light (Cinco Puntos, 2010) and blogger Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature.

What's In a Name? Naming Characters by Jodie Renner from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: "Here are some tips for naming your characters..."

One Crazy Road to Here: CSK Author Acceptance by Rita Williams-Garcia from The Horn Book. Peek: "Children were being born into the revolution. Children were ever-present and at the heart of the ideals of change and revolution."

The Rejection Reaction by Keith Cronin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I think we can all agree: rejection sucks. And for most of us, the first few rejections we receive can be particularly painful. Why does this stuff hit us so hard?"

Author Insight: Novel Avoidance from Wastepaper Prose. Fun quotes from various authors about what they do when they should (?) be writing.

Who Made You, Nancy Drew? from Sarah Rees Brennan. Peek: "...I thought I would concentrate on Nancy Drew in the real world. The elements of Nancy which have inspired and influenced people, and the world and the women who produced Nancy Drew." Source: WriterJenn.

Gina Rosati on Taking Responsibility as a Writer from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "I am no longer writing for myself – I have an agent, an editor and her publishing house depending on my ability to produce a marketable product. I’ll have bookstores counting on earning a profit and libraries spending their dwindling budget on my book."

Making Sense of High Concept by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "There are so many definitions for “high concept” floating around. Can you help me understand what this really means?"

Character Trait: Kind by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "...the mindset of giving; inclination to offer help and lift another's spirit."

Facebook for Authors: Understanding Edge Rank by Chris Robley from BookBaby. Peek: "Photos perform better on Facebook than mere text. So even if you want to post a status update, make sure you have a photo to accompany it." Source: Samantha Clark.

21 Plot Shapes and the Pros and Cons of Each by Mette Ivie Harrison from Intergalactic Medicine Show. Peek: "The key to this plot shape is that each smaller climax is related to the larger climax and leads to it." 2012 Schedule of Events: top pros in children's-YA literature provide excellent information via the web (perfect for writers without a big travel budget and more!).

Cynsational Giveaways
The winner of Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker Prize Package (Bloomsbury, 2012) was Pat in California. The winner of a choice of YA Novels by Brent Hartinger was Frances in Illinois.The winners of The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser (McElderry, 2012) were Kathy in Ohio, Carl in Arizona and Rebecca in California.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Starring a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt
This summer week was filled with writing, teaching, working out, and watching the Olympics and "Remington Steele."

I keep meaning to mention that I saw "The Dark Knight Rises." I went opening weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin. I enjoyed the nods to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and was especially wowed by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Don't get me wrong: Eartha Kitt is and shall forever be my favorite Catwoman, but still, I was wowed. I also really enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance in the film, but that comes as no surprise. He had me at Tommy.

Interviu cu o autoare: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Alexandra in Romania from Niahara's World of Books. Peek: "I would order the wasabi deviled eggs, the West Texas rattlesnake ravioli marinara, the Chianti-marinated wild mushrooms, and the kumquat sherbet with frozen eyes of newt." Note: the focus of the interview is on Blessed (Candlewick/Walker, 2011).

Even More Personally

Last weekend we returned to the Round Top, Texas area for more theatrical fun.

Once more we stayed at the Belle of Round Top B&B and Retreat Center.
We saw "Heart of the Tin Trunk" at the Festival Institute.
Then we returned to Shakesspeare at Winedale (love the Cowboy Willie logo).
The play was "Winter's Tale."
The outside of the barn at Winedale, designed in homage to the Globe Theatre.

Personal Links

From Greg Leitich Smith

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway: Suzanne Williams on Heroes in Training: Finding Your High Concept Series Hook

Joan and Suzanne
By Suzanne Wiliams
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

A high concept book/series hook should be original, unique, and have wide appeal. It’s a fresh spin on a universal situation or premise. The best hooks will cause others to think, “Wow. What fantastic idea. Wish I’d thought of it.”

Joan Holub and I had already written and published the first half-dozen books in our Goddess Girls series (Aladdin, ages 8-12) when we decided to try writing another Greek mythology-based fiction series.

We wanted to aim this new, concurrent series at both boys and girls, and at a younger audience. We already knew our subject—Greek mythology. And we knew our demographic—boys and girls ages 7 – 11.

But what would our series hook be?

Honestly, we didn’t know.

We discussed some existing adventure-fantasy chapter book series that we enjoyed or that booksellers had told us were popular with our demographic, such as Beast Quest and Time Warp Trio.

The fast-paced adventure and short chapter book length appealed to us. “We can do that,” we said.

Each book in our Goddess Girls series is loosely based on one or two existing Greek myths. We knew from the outset that we wanted to do something similar with our new series, Heroes in Training.

Next, we brainstormed our main characters, choosing a ten-year-old Zeus as our main character. After all, he’s king of the gods and ruler of the heavens! Who could possibly be more intriguing?

Our secondary characters would be other Olympians: Poseidon, Hades, and Hera, for example, all the same age as Zeus.

So now we knew our general subject, our demographic, desired book length and reading level, main characters, and that we wanted the books to have lots of fast-paced adventure. “They’ve got to be funny too,” we said. (We like to laugh when we write, and kids like to laugh when they read.)

Still, we didn’t have a firm series hook. It was time for a marathon phone call.

We talked for two hours and came up with: the Titans vs the Olympians. King Cronus and his Titan henchmen vs ten-year-old Zeus and the other Olympian boys and girls.

The hook is unique and a fresh spin on a universal topic (Greek mythology) because our series’ Olympians are all ten-years-old, yet they’re pitted against an army of adult Titans.

Cronus and his evil henchmen—an army of half-giants and Titans, and various “Creatures of Chaos”—pursue our young “heroes in training” from one book to the next as they recover magical items (a magical lightning bolt, for example), solve a dangerous problem in their universe, and rescue their fellow Olympians from the clutches of their enemies.

Here’s how we stated our overall series goal in the proposal we sent our publisher:
When he pulls a magic thunderbolt from an encrypted stone, ten-year-old Zeus discovers his destiny as King of the Gods. He goes on a quest to rescue his fellow Olympians (who’ve been imprisoned in various realms) in order to defeat the ruling Titans, thus halting their plans to dominate the world and reign havoc on mortals.

We included the following in our series proposal:
  • Series title and titles of individual books (publishers occasionally change titles) 
  • Genre, age group, reading level, length of individual books 
  • Overall series synopsis (1/2 page, includes your hook) 
  • Overall series synopsis (1-3 pages)
  • Main characters (individual descriptions, about ½ page each) Synopses of individual books (we usually aim for four books) --first three chapters of book one

If you’ve never written a series before, you’ll likely need to submit an entire first book manuscript along with synopses (one-to-three pages in length) for other proposed books. Most series start with two-to-six books and build from there.

Does your series absolutely need a high-concept hook? Not necessarily. The appeal of some books is only evident upon reading and cannot be understood by a three-sentence statement of premise.

But if you can write a wonderful book/series that is also high-concept, you’ll likely hear, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” And even more importantly, you’ll soon have lots of happy young readers!

About the Heroes in Training Series

The terrible Titans—merciless giants who enjoy snacking on humans—have dominated the earth and put the world into chaos. But their rule is about to be put to the test as a group of young Olympians discover their powers and prepare to righteously rule the universe....

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom (Book One of the Heroes in Training Series) by Joan Holub and Suzanne Wiliams (Aladdin, 2012) From the promotional copy:

Life on the Greek Island of Crete is mega-boring for ten-year-old Zeus. Except for the stormy days when sizzling lightning blots chase him around. He’s been zapped dozens of times! He’d like to escape those pesky electric shocks. And he also longs for adventure.

Zeus gets his wish--and more than he bargained for--when he’s kidnapped by three half-giants—henchmen of the evil King Cronus. After braving a terrifying ship ride, constant threats of becoming snack food, and some oversized, boy-pecking birds, Zeus finds himself in a showdown with an entire army of half-giants. He grabs the first thing he sees to defend himself from a nearby stone—which turns out to be a thunderbolt with a mind of its own! With the help of the annoying Bolt and a talking stone amulet, young Zeus sets off on the adventure of a lifetime: a journey to find his destiny as King of the Gods. 

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada.

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SCBWI Debuts On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award

at Cynsations

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) announced the creation of the On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award at their 41st Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

The annual award, established by SCBWI and funded by Martin and Sue Schmitt, will be given to two writers or illustrators who are from ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in children’s literature in America and who have a ready-to-submit completed work for children.

The purpose of the grant is to inspire and foster the emergence of diverse writers and illustrators of children’s books.

The work will be judged by an SCBWI committee and two winners will each receive an all-expenses paid trip to the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York to meet with editors and agents, a press release to all publishers, a year of free membership to SCBWI, and an SCBWI mentor for a year.

Deadline for submission is Nov. 15, 2012. The winners will be announced Dec. 15, 2012. The On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award will be presented at the 2013 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York. Submission guidelines and information can be found at under Awards and Grants.

By Lin Oliver, Henry Winkler
The award was inspired in part by the SCBWI’s increasing efforts to foster under-represented voices in children’s literature. According to SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver, “Every child should have the opportunity to experience many and diverse of points of view. SCBWI is proud to contribute to this all-important effort to bring forth new voices.”

The grant was made possible through the generosity of Sue and Martin Schmitt of the 455 Foundation who state: "While our country is made up of beautifully varied cultures and ethnicities, too few are represented in the voices of children's books. We hope to encourage participation by those not well represented, and look forward to having these stories widely enjoyed by all children."

About Martin and Sue Schmitt

Martin and Sue Schmitt are the founders of We Can Build an Orphanage, sponsoring the Kay Angel orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. The organization was established in 2007 with the mission to provide a home and education for abandoned children infected with or affected by AIDS in Jacmel, Haiti. The Schmitt’s generous and continuous efforts to support SCBWI’s long-term goals also co-sponsored the 2007 Global Voices Program, which highlighted Mongolian artists and authors. To find out more information about the Kay Angel orphanage please visit


Interview with Stephen
Founded in 1971, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the largest existing writers’ and illustrators’ organizations, with over 22,000 members worldwide. It is the only organization specifically for those working in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.

The organization was founded by Stephen Mooser (President) and Lin Oliver (Executive Director), both of whom are well-published children’s book authors and leaders in the world of children’s literature.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

New Voice: Suzanne Lazear on Innocent Darkness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Suzanne Lazear is the first-time author of Innocent Darkness (Book 1, The Aether Chronicles)(Flux, 2012)(author blog), a YA fairytale steampunk story. From the promotional copy:

Wish. Love. Desire. Live. 

Sixteen-year-old Noli Braddock's hoyden ways land her in an abusive reform school far from home. On mid-summer's eve she wishes to be anyplace but that dreadful school. Her wish sends her tumbling into the Otherworld. 

A mysterious man from the Realm of Faerie rescues her, only to reveal that she must be sacrificed, otherwise, the entire Otherworld civilization will perish.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Way back in graduate school I wanted to write a story about a girl who moves into a falling apart house with a crazy old tree and gets sucked into the Realm of Faerie. I was going to call it "Queen of the Broken Tree." The very first manuscript I ever finished started with that premise and ended up a story about an elven princess, a vampire, and a human sorceress going to Harvard. (I think only one person has ever read that particular story.)

I still really wanted to write that original premise, so a few years later I went back to it and created the story that would eventually become Innocent Darkness. That was where Noli (my main character), V (her best friend), and Kevighn (the anti-hero), first emerged.

They’ve always been Noli, Steven (the nickname V came later), and Kevighn, even before the story was steampunk and named "Innocent Darkness." (For all those wondering, Kevighn is pronounced like Kevin).

But it wasn’t until I sat down and actually wrote the first draft that I discovered so many things about them. Noli really changed personality wise, and I discovered she wanted to be a botanist.

When I first started writing, I had no idea Kevighn had a sister, that V loves the book Nicomachean Ethics, or that Noli’s older brother was an air-pirate. I just love discovering things about my characters as I write—it’s like magic.

The first draft was also where I got to know James and Charlotte, two secondary characters that I adore, one of which didn’t even exist before I started writing the story on paper.

Innocent Darkness still isn’t really that exact original premise – though it does involve a big tree and the Realm of Faerie. Queen of the Broken Tree just didn’t fit as a title either, but one day, maybe I’ll write a story that does fit it.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Every single day. Regardless of whether you want to or not. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes. It’s the only way you’re going to do it.

I have a family, a full time job, and three hours of commuting every day. I also write every single day.

It comes down to priorities. Obviously, some things have to give. Only you can decide that things you’re willing to cut out to make time for writing (and your family) when you’re not working. For me it was TV, pleasure reading (which hurt, but I couldn’t read one or two books a week and still write. I traded them for audio books to listen to in the car), and house cleaning.

I never really liked house cleaning anyway. Okay, I do clean; someone has to.

I write at lunch, every day, taking my lunch box and my laptop to a quiet corner instead of going out or being social. Often it’s the only good writing I get done during the week.

On Saturdays everyone knows that’s Mommy’s Day to write in her PJs until noon, then we do stuff as a family, housework, etc. I do some writing at night after my daughter goes to bed, but I make time for the hubby, too. A lot of it is about creative time management and balance. I plot and drive (so don’t drive behind me, okay?).

Discover what works for you, because what works for one person may not work for another, and go for it. Try to set a daily goal that works for you, where it’s writing for an hour, writing five pages, or writing 1,000 words.

Also, don’t neglect your family—even on deadline. Make them understand that Mommy needs to get work done, but schedule time for them, too. I do a lot of, "let me finish this chapter, then we’ll color." Or "how about I take my laptop outside and write while you climb the tree." (Timers are your friend).

They’re your biggest fans, writing is tough work and you need them.

Another thing I learned is to forgive yourself. If you don’t meet your goal for the day, it’s okay. But, the next day you have to get back to it. Keep going and don’t compare yourself to other people.

Most of all, don’t give up. It might take awhile, but you can do it.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Lazear writes steampunk stories for adults and teens. She always plays with swords, is never described as normal, and has been known to run with bustles. Suzanne lives in Southern California with her daughter, the hubby, a hermit crab, and two chickens, where she’s currently attempting to make a ray gun to match her ballgown.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Career Builder: Carolyn Crimi

Carolyn Crimi, pirate queen
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Carolyn Crimi received her MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College in 2000.

She has published thirteen books, including Don't Need Friends, Boris and Bella, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy?, Principal Fred Won’t Go To Bed, Dear Tabby, Rock and Roll Mole, and Pugs in a Bug.

This year Carolyn was quite pleased to be awarded The Prairie State Award for her body of work.

Carolyn enjoys giving Author Talks to elementary schools all over the country. Her website gives more details about her books and her background. Students, moms, teachers and librarians are also welcome to post letters about their pets on Carolyn’s blog, Dear Tabby.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

I consider giving up my writing career just about every year. I have long, drawn out fantasies about what my life would be like if I did something else. I strategize about how I’ll gradually slip out of the children’s book world so that no one will notice. I tell myself it will be just like leaving a party without saying goodbye. No big deal. Happens all the time.

One of my fantasies involves a perfume store. I love perfume and have often dreamed of opening a small perfume boutique. I was in one of those “I’m-quitting-writing” moods, and I started to run the numbers on this boutique. I scouted locations and brainstormed a few names.

Now I happen to know that on any given weekday in my town the tiny shops are empty. When the bored store owner greets me with a little too much enthusiasm, I know she probably hasn’t had a customer all day. I wondered what I would do on boring days like that.

I remember looking out my window and saying out loud, “Well, I guess I could always write.”

So yes, I am stuck with this writing thing. And hey, it could be a lot worse. What keeps me going is the writing itself. I don’t care for the marketing part of it or the publishing part.

In fact, when the reviews start pouring in for a new book I feel like crawling inside a small, dark hole with a box of Pop Tarts. What I really enjoy is the writing. No matter what happens with my career, I will always write. And maybe open a perfume store, too….

How do you stay inspired? Describe your dance with the muse.

I mix it up! While most of my published books are picture books, lately I’ve been having a lot of fun working on a novel for adults. I must admit, it’s fun to write about characters who swear. This novel may never get published, and that’s fine. I’m having a blast.

I’ve also been working on illustrating a few books for the very young. I have found that illustrating is even more fun than writing is! Who knew?

Again, I don’t know if I’ll ever publish these books. I think, actually, that that’s what makes them so much more fun to work on. I have no idea what I’m doing. None! I don’t know why that makes these projects more fun than my usual picture books, but it does. Try it!

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?

I don’t really do much marketing at all. I’m not particularly proud of this fact, but I have found over the years that telling other writers this often makes them feel better about themselves.

I have, on occasion, hired publicists to market books that I felt might benefit from an extra push. I hire them because I hate to do it myself, and I wind up not doing anything at all.

Many of my books have gone out into the world without even one small book signing. Many! The weird thing is, I think those books have done just as well as my books that I have promoted.

So. Whatever.

I enjoy doing school visits and see them as my way of “marketing.” I can sell over 400 books at just one school visit. That’s about 395 more books than I usually sell at a book signing. I also get paid to do school visits, so it’s a win-win. And come on, what’s more fun than making kids laugh?

But no, I’ve never promoted my school visits either. Never even had a brochure. I’ve just made it into this incredibly exciting event and have depended entirely on word of mouth. I do between 30 and 50 a year, so I guess that strategy is working.

I always give my school visit presentation 100 percent. I remind myself that while I’ve heard it hundreds of times, these kids are hearing it for the first time and they deserve the best I can give them. I’ve seen too many authors sleep walk through their presentations.

I get it. School visits are hard. Focus on that one kid who can’t even breathe she’s so excited and you’ll get your energy back.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

My favorite career quote of all time came from Tom Cruise.

Yes, Tom Cruise!

I read an interview with him once and when the interviewer asked him how he dealt with all the craziness of being famous he said, “I remind myself to keep my head down and do the work.”

Keep your head down and do the work. I am not famous, but I repeat this to myself all the time. Step away from Publishers Lunch, my friends. It will only make you crazy.

Conferences with big name authors are just like high school and can, at times, make you feel as though you are still the nerdy kid with braces with no one to sit with at lunch.

Do them if you must, but seriously, if you keep your head down and do the work you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children's-YA authors who written and published books for 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.


Monday, August 06, 2012

Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The White-Hot Center of Story

Courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Where Stories Come From

Before I ask my fifth grade students to consider a moment in their lives that has changed the way they view the world, we discuss two fundamental questions: Where do our best stories come from? 
What shapes our voice as writers?

Interesting ideas, experiences, observations, memories, my fifth graders decide.

Then we dig deeper. I suggest to them that maybe the origins of a writer’s art are not rooted in the ideas of the mind, nor in literal memory, but in the unconscious, in “the place from where you dream,” as Robert Olen Butler explains. “Story comes from the white-hot center of you.”

After a few confused glances are exchanged, we begin to explore Voice and the narrative power we all possess through two memoir collections of award-winning children’s writers, both edited by Amy Ehrlich, titled When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick).

In these volumes, twenty different award-winning writers recount their own childhood memories, as well as contribute notes about how they made their selection and what in their lives led them to be writers.

Karen Hesse writes about an abusive mother and the neighbors who turn a blind eye.

Rita Williams-Garcia and her siblings concoct an elaborate plot to outsmart their mother, Miss Essie.

Sid Fleischman uses humor to examine his own affliction with Chronic Stature Deficiency.

Some stories are witty, others sad, but all are inspiring, because they honor childhood and capture the honest truths about growing up.

A Memory's White-Hot Center

The stories in these memoir collections are particularly poignant because they are not literally true in every detail. Rather, they are each a journey back in time to the writer’s favorite haunts; the familiar spaces they call home, places of white-hot memories and personal transformation.

Young writers at work; courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
My class considers the revelation that maybe if the authors had drawn strictly from memory, the magic of the moment, the mysterious unconscious from which they extracted their stories, might have otherwise given way to a less exciting story, something too prescriptive; fixed ideas of the past versus felt impressions that resonate with readers of all ages.

The best memoirs are a physical and emotional venture. They are a study of the “story behind the story,” the true change within the main character that a reader can also discover within his or herself. This emotional nuance is another reason why Ehrlich’s memoir collections work.

Each represents what Butler explains as the Three Fundamentals of Fiction: “First, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion […] and the third element […] has to do with the phenomenon of desire.”

By desire, Butler means a yearning for something—an object, experience, entitlement—that when cracked open, reveals an essential human need: courage, acceptance, respect, love, safety, control, friendship, imagination, or joy from those who are at the center of our young worlds: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and, always, ourselves.

Everything Will Be Okay

Out of the many memoirs I’ve shared with students, two remain fixed in my mind: James Howe’s (of Bunnicula fame) "Everything Will Be Okay" and Mary Pope Osborne’s (Magic Tree House series) "All-Ball." In Everything Will Be Okay, Howe finds a lost kitten and longs to keep it, but his older brother forces him to live by a code of toughness pervasive in the family that flattens Howe’s (and the kitten’s) vulnerability.

In what Butler would describe as a “burst of waking dream,” Howe simultaneously relives the past and glimpses into the future when he says, “Then all of a sudden […] I know some things so clearly that I will never have to ask an older brother to help me figure them out. / I will never work for Dr. Milk. / I will not go hunting with my father. / I will decide for myself what kind of boy I am, what kind of man I will become.”


In “All Ball,” eight-year-old Mary Pope Osborne remembers back to the weeks before she got the “really bad news”: her father would be leaving for a tour of duty in Korea.

Osborne tries to regain a semblance of normalcy by keeping a daily list of things to do: “Wash hands / Play with dolls / Practice writing / Practicing running / Cry for Daddy,” but she soon finds herself crying, “even when it wasn’t scheduled,” and keeps a close watch on her father, “because I felt I had to store up enough memories of him to last throughout the coming year.”

When Osborne’s father gives her money at a five-and-dime, she scours for “an object worthy of the last-fifty-cents-my-father-gave-me-before-he-went-to-Korea”: a softball-sized rubber ball with such spunk and bounce that she names it All-Ball. The two are immediately inseparable. Osborne uses her time with All-Ball to act out stories of families “in which everyone stayed together.” She falls in love with a ball. One can only imagine what happens to her beloved friend before the story’s end and the swell of emotions that follow. Ultimately, Osborne must accept “the complications of the moment” and the departure of those she loves most dearly; she must hold onto hope and face the unknown.

In her Afterward, Osborne explains that she decided to share this story because “it speaks to the hardest thing about being a child: the fact that most things in your life are out of your control. On the other hand, it also shows one of the best things about being a child: the fact that you can use your imagination to help ease your troubles.”

The Truth

New! 2012 Edition (Vol. I & II)
Myriad themes course through the childhood stories of When I Was Your Age and speak to every kind of reader: the need to be tough, to receive approval, to do well, to be loved, to show courage in the face of danger or cruelty; also, resourcefulness, self-confidence, and, of course, the essential question of Identity, “what it is and how you get it” (Ehrlich).

These stories remind us of the parameters by which we define ourselves, and how we eventually break away from these assumptions to “carve out new identities all our own.”

In the end, however, the most powerful undercurrent beneath these twenty voices is as Ehrlich describes, “the transformation of suffering through art,” through language, and its connection across generations and geographical locations. For after all, it is our differences that make us human, and in echoing the words of Amy Ehrlich to my room of fifth graders, “if we tell the truth, we will be understood.”

I invite you to explore When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick, 2012). Use the collections to springboard into your own writing reflections: revisit the childhood memories that come from the white-hot center of you, the ones that reveal your deepest yearnings, that have shaped your unique voice, and that beg to be told.

Cynsational Notes

Authors featured in the anthology: Avi; Francesca Lia Block; Joseph Bruchac; Susan Cooper; Paul Fleischman; Karen Hesse; James Howe; E. L. Konigsburg; Reeve Lindbergh; Norma Fox Mazer; Nicholasa Mohr; Kyoko Mori; Walter Dean Myers; Howard Norman; Mary Pope Osborne; Katherine Paterson; Michael J. Rosen; Rita Williams-Garcia; Laurence Yep; Jane Yolen.

Visit Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
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, August 05, 2012

Book Trailer: The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Cordova

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Cordova (Sourcebooks, 2012). From the promotional copy:

When an unnatural riptide sweeps lifeguard Tristan Hart out to sea for three days and then dumps him back on the shore of Coney Island, it's the start of the Sea Court claiming its own. 

Suddenly, Tristan's girlfriend dramas and swimming championship seem like distant worries as he discovers the truth: he's a Merman.

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