Rx for Writers


“The Pre-Side of Writing”

with Cynthia Leitich-Smith

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Cynthia Leitich-Smith is the award-winning author of JINGLE DANCER (Morrow, 2000), INDIAN SHOES (HarperCollins, 2001), RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001)(Listening Library, 2001), and short stories published in various anthologies. Cynthia's latest title is a picture book, SANTA KNOWS, co-authored by her husband Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006). She also looks forward to the release of a young adult gothic fantasy novel, TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007). Cynthia is a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and she has written several articles published in children's-YA literature journals.

Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column. Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas.


Jan is Jan Fields, moderator of this interview with Cynthia Leitich-Smith, and Web Editor of the ICL Web Site. Green shows names or usernames of people and the questions they asked Cynthia.

Interviews are held on pre-scheduled Thursday evenings for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.

Jan: Welcome to SPECIAL GUEST CHAT: "The Pre-Side of Writing" with Cynthia Leitich-Smith! Pull up a chair and be amazed as we talk about ways pre-writing has helped build great books, and how you can use the same techniques. Welcome, Cynthia!

Cynthia: Thank you! It's an honor to be here

Jan: You have a lot of folks all excited with the topic of this chat -- apparently many people are interested in the prewriting process. So...tell me, what do you mean by "pre" or "side" writing?

Cynthia: I'm referring to writing that isn't directly on the manuscript itself. So, that may include writing activities....like interviewing your characters and having them answer in their own "voice" or having them write a review of your work in progress or non-writing activities that inform the writing like selecting a totem object that's symbolic to your character or finding a "photo" of her in a magazine to use as a model.

Jan: Wow, what were some of the totem objects your characters have had?

Cynthia: In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the hero Cassidy Rain wears a smudge necklace that is symbolic to her of her heritage healing, which is a major theme of the book, and her relationship with her best friend Galen. But, the totem object you find doesn't necessarily have to appear in the book. It may just be a way for you to connect to some core aspect of that character.

COCOA: What is a smudge necklace? I've heard of smudging but not of a smudge necklace.

Cynthia: Essentially it's the herbs encased in a small leather pouch and usually strung on leather with accent beads as a necklace. It also merits mentioning that the "object" doesn't have to be small and personal. In my upcoming gothic fantasy YA Tantalize (March 07) Quincie's object of significance is her family's restaurant. That's big, but it's still *personal.*

Jan: What other kinds of pre-writing did you engage in for Rain Is Not My Indian Name?

Cynthia: I used my aunt Gail's historic home in small-town Missouri as a model for Rain's house. That way I could close my eyes and see the characters move from room to room. This really helped me as I imagined the novel moving like a film in my mind's eye, right down to the stencils around the ceilings.

seasplash: How do you interview your characters?

Cynthia: I tend to do a Q&A of each one especially the protagonist and antagonist. I think writers tend to underestimate the complexity and importance of the antagonist. I ask them a lot of questions about themselves, but also the other characters. Sometimes the character's best friend or worst enemy will reveal something that they won't.

COCOA: When you start to write a story, how much of the plot do you have to set in your head? Is it all plotted out or do you sort of figure it out as you go along?

Cynthia: I usually have an opening line. Sometimes, but not always a whole scene. But I have a good idea of what the protagonist thinks he/she wants. Usually, it takes a lot of drafts before he/she (for that matter I) figure out what the deeper, true goal is.

Jan: How about your upcoming novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007)? What pre-writing activities did you do to develop the setting at the restaurant, at the characters' homes, in the city?

Cynthia: I had dinner at virtually every Italian restaurant in town and told myself it was research and it was! I watched for small details, like the way the food was run, the kids of interpersonal conflicts that arose with guests, the wines they served, how well the restrooms were kept up (or not), you name it. I also talked to people in the restaurant business, which I'd worked in during high school and college. I went to open houses, too, and fessed up to the realtors that I was shopping for homes for my characters. I was kind of worried how that might go over, but they were delighted, and with owners permission, allowed me to take photos and floor plans. In addition, I shot probably nine rolls of film of the setting neighborhoods and that was just to get started.

rainchain: Would you use this kind of interview pre writing for a short story or picture book or just mid grade and novels?

Cynthia: I've never used a character interview for a short story or picture book just with work for older readers. I think that with shorter works I have a pretty good snapshot in my mind of who the character is and what his/her goal is going in. I almost have to because those tend to flow out in gushes rather than my more standard scene-by-scene or two-pages a day writing for a novel.

newfiegirl15: Your Charactors, are they fictional?

Cynthia: Yes, with one exception...I wrote a short story, "The Naked Truth," which was published in 2003 in an anthology called In My Grandmother's House: Award-Winning Authors Tell Stories About Their Grandmothers. In that case, it was a based-on-my-childhood story and so of course my parents and I were real-life people.

TERRI: I've written a Native American story. Do you think a writer should be Native American to write that type of story?

Cynthia: Well, I'm not a vampire, and my next novel is a vampire novel, although I did graduate from law school...(that last part was a joke; my darling husband is a lawyer). What I think about cross-cultural writing is that we all have to do it to convey the beauty and diversity of our world. Our responsibility as writers is to do our homework, come from a place of respect, and realize that we're all human (even those posing as animal characters or other fantasy types) and that's the source of story.

dsynr: Do you think that there is any market for a YA story with heroines of two ifferent cultures who work out the problem of the tale together?

Cynthia: Certainly! Cross-cultural relationships are of great interest to young readers, and publishers recognize that. You might consider telling your story in alternating viewpoint so that each has an opportunity to shine. Actually, there are several wonderful novels that do this including my husband's Tofu and T. Rex (Little Brown).

dsynr: How important is it that one character be the "heroine"? My pair switch dominance a few times during the tale, but it seems to work. I used the character with the strengths needed for the situation; and I didn't want to make either one of them too dominant. I wanted to emphasize that they regard each other as equals. Now, I'm not sure that won't be confusing to the reader.

Cynthia: It's hard to say without reading the manuscript but many stories have co-protagonists that each bring their own strengths to situations as they evolve. It's part of what makes each one distinctive and interesting.

newfiegirl15: I have to go soon, what advise would you give a young writer.

Cynthia: Welcome to the writing life! I was also writing young--mostly as a journalist, which taught me daily deadlines and introduced me to a huge variety of people all with stories to tell. Try to write two pages a day. Read a lot. And focus more on craft, on the writer's life, than the author's life. One thing that happens once you enter publishing as a business is that it competes with your writing time and occasionally clouds what's most important--craft. I offer a number of recommended writer resources on my website http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com and suggest you take a look. Also Cynsations, my blog, is updated very regularly at: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ For books, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Make Your Words Work are both great places to start.

zebrakitchen: Please explain what you mean by focusing on craft?

Cynthia: By craft I mean the art of writing -- developing three-dimensional characters, offering a compelling voice, delving into meaningful, resonant themes, learning how to convey emotion through dialogue, how to raise stakes for a more page-turning read -- that sort of thing rather than worrying about getting an agent or a publisher.

coloradokate: When I have to prewrite in detail, like writing out a synopsis for an ICL lesson (!), it seems to take some of the fun and the freshness out of the actual writing for me. I feel like I've already told the story, I guess. Do you ever have that problem? How do you avoid it?

Cynthia: I've never written a synopsis or outline before beginning a story, article, anything. So if I'm going through and putting together something like that the story already is largely revealed and I'm using the exercise to look at pacing, plot holes, that sort of thing.

cocoa: Do all your stories have a beginning middle and end, or are some "slices of life"?

Cynthia: I'm a structure writer. It's almost a market necessity these days, especially at the picture book level. Although arguably every scene is a bit of a slice of life, they still tend to have a beginning, middle, end and some forward-moving resonance and/or energy.

donr: Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Cynthia: Not often. I pretty much fall into whatever world is in front of me at least at the early stages. In fact, I tend to work on shorter manuscripts--like picture books and short stories in part to clear my head between novels so one protagonist's voice and personality doesn't bleed into the next. But of course with production what it is, I'm often having to pick up a revision or check over pass pages while working on the next book.

Aura: At what point in your story creation process do you start to write things down?

Cynthia: Whenever I have something worth writing. You would think I would be organized and carry around a notebook or something. However, the truth is that many of my notes are written on torn envelopes (the entire first draft of Jingle Dancer), napkins and I have a particularly bad habit of writing on my own skin--my hand or my arm...too often at stoplights.

Tabitha: How many pages are in your character worksheets?

Cynthia: I have fairly extensive files for the characters, beginning with some of the basic questions and really augmenting that related activities, like picking out a theme song for the character, and then I'll write to that music. But if I had to guess, I'd say, probably 5 pages of questions, that once answered, could run as long as 20.

Tabitha: I'm a visual person and like to see the entire plot laid out, can you suggest a way to do that?

Cynthia: I would suggest using index cards of different colors... say yellow for the plot, green for the setting, blue for the characters... and then you can put each plot point in front of your in a line, circle or pyramid, depending on how your brain works... with the rest either descending from or shooting off that relevant moment in the tale. You also could get a few of friends to act it out.

dragonlady: explain how your relationship with your husband both helps and hinders your work?

Cynthia: Greg is my most accessible reader, so I've been known to chase him around the house saying "read this read this read this." We also give each other much more blunt critique....like "this is not leaving the house with our family name on it" or "why don't you use it to wrap fish." You know, things we'd never say to anyone else, but that's okay because we both take it in the spirit intended. That said, I don't recommend this approach to newlyweds or people who didn't meet as first-year law students. The downside is that our creative cycles are not compatible. When I'm between drafts and want to play, he's busy, busy with his new novel and vise versa. We understand what each other is going through but we also can be a distraction to one another. That said we do share research--we have built pasta bridges together, and devised menus, and studied herds of red cattle up close (flies and everything).

webby27: Who are some of your favorite writers?

Cynthia: Carolyn Crimi, Annette Curtis Klause, Franny Billingsley, Jane Kurtz, Kathi Appelt, Libba Bray, M.T. Anderson, Marion Dane Bauer, Joan Bauer, Laura Ruby, Anne Bustard, Brian Yansky, Shutta Crum, to name a few....See my website bilbiographies and author interviews for many, many more.

cheryl matsen: please describe your writer's voice and why it is so successful.

Cynthia: I don't use my own voice. I find a voice for each character--major and minor, for each narrator. It's their voices that lead the reader through the story. One of the most important things I do is to get out of their way.

nisey: Do your ideas for stories come from this type of prewriting?

Cynthia: I have a general idea going in, but the prewritng helps flesh that out. For example, reading about the characters' interests opens up possibilities of debates that might exist in their world... specific challenges. For example, I had a character who was doing work-study at school. So as I looked at the related regulations, which led me to a subpoint about her absences and brainstormed people at a high school, which led me to a conflict with a vice principal.

Jan: I know you use music a lot in your writing -- characterization and process -- I have to write with deadly quiet. Can you tell us how music helps you? How have you used it?

Cynthia: I use music to set the mood, the place inside myself so that the character can come forth. I listened to powwow music and watched powwow video with music for Jingle Dancer (as well as hearing it in person). It's so especially important with a dance or music book for the reader to be able to "hear" those rhythms in the language. So I would read the text aloud to the music and see if it seemed to fit. It was funny; when I was working on Tantalize, I listened to the soundtrack from Coopola's Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and my husband was upstairs listening to polka music for his German-Polish Fest scenes. You could hear both on the stairs. The cats were confused.

Jan: Do your cats ever slip into your stories?

Cynthia: They really do their best! Mercury, my alpha tabby, was the inspiration for Angel, Galen's cat from Rain. And I also named a bartender at Sanguini's after Sebastian, the beta cat, because when I said aloud, "now what do I name this guy?" Bashi jumped on my lap and loudly meowed. Who was I to argue?

stargirl: How much time do you spend pre-writing do you do before you actually start to work on the draft?

Cynthia: It varies wildly from novel to novel and I continue to do this sort of thing after I actually start working on the draft. But I'd say at least a month...especially if I have to build a fantasy world.

gonewest: What is your typical day like? A.M. writer P.M. writer?

Cynthia: If I'm working on a rough draft, I do that between midnight and four a.m. so that the phone stops ringing, along with the doorbell, and my adoring husband is soundly asleep. That shifts things quite a lot and the cycle of the day starts at about 10 a.m. If not, then I wake up, answer email and check my list servs for about three or four hours as well as post to my blog, have lunch and walk on the treadmill (to Cher, Xanadu, the Buffy soundtrack--great stuff like that) for another couple of hours and settle in. I can usually write for two-to-four hours in the afternoon, and another two-to-four at night. However, in addition to that I also read at least one novel a day and several picture books. The schedule is fluid and varies for travel, events, etc. But I read and write quite consistently.

DONR: Do you have a limit for the number of characters in a story?

Cynthia: I have as many characters as it takes to get the story told. However, I would look especially hard for characters that could be cut or combined in any case but especially in shorter pieces.

austinartguy: Are your stories sold before you write them, or do you write, then sell it?

Cynthia: I have a deathly fear of pre-selling something that isn't written. However, I have sold stories on drafts that still needed another couple of drafts and I have submitted short stories to anthologists who'd asked only the number of authors they needed to submit.

stargirl: Approximately how long does it take you to complete a first draft of a YA novel?

Cynthia: Four-to-six months, depending. But I always throw away those first drafts and delete the files so I won't be tempted to look at them. Sometimes I do that more than once.

rrmarkewicz: Do you ever reuse characters in other stories?

Cynthia: I haven't so far, but I have some interest in doing that in the future. I have used a fictional location. There's a costume shop in my short story "A Real-Life Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annnoyed Soul Mate,"which appeared in Moccasin Thunder (Harper, 05), that also is mentioned in Tantalize.

inky: May have already answered this, Do you have an agent and how long did it take to find just the right fit between you and an agent?

Cynthia: I do have an agent, and she has been a tremendous champion. I signed with her early in my career. I'd been writing for a couple of years, and more than one editor was interested in one of my picture books. Because we had a pre-existing relationship...(professional relationship through the industry)...I wrote asking if I could ask her a question about that--I was so worried about doing the wrong thing, burning a bridge, coming off clueless... So I began by saying, "I had this terrible problem -- multiple editors were interested in my work, and I didn't know what to do." I'll never forget what she wrote back. "Cynthia, this is not what we in publishing consider 'a problem." It evolved from there.

Jan: So...Cynthia, can you share your first book publication story?

Cynthia: It's a long and dramatic tale, but I'll hit the highlights. I'd read on childrens-writer that an editor speaking at a California SCBWI conference was looking for contemporary multicultural stories--not folk tales, but stories of real-life kids today. I was thrilled. That was when people were saying, "Multiculturalism is dead." and contemporary Native work was very rare in the field. She was very interested in a couple of my picture book manuscripts. One of which I'd also submitted for critique at two conferences (leading to editors there being interested as well). The book, Jingle Dancer, sold to Lodestar and I was estatic. But... Then in the Penguin-Putnam merger (I think that's what is was called at the time), Lodestar was downsized. My editor was fired. And my contract was canceled. I cried. Really. Big tears. This was my big break and it was already over. What if I never sold a first book again? But then! My editor was hired by Morrow Junior Books, and she bought the book again! (I got to keep both advances--I decided it was just compensation for emotional distresss or maybe karma) But then...HarperCollins bought Morrow, and I held my breath. Morrow was downsized--they eliminated the line, but they kept my editor and my contract, so I am one of the few authors who sold her first book to one house (Lodestar) had it produced at a second (Morrow) and released by a third (HarperCollins). Whew.

Jan: Did you ever worry about being seen as someone who could "just write about Native Americans?"

Cynthia: I used to... I remember that I was at a conference when the person introducing me said, "Cynthia Leitich Smith writes contemporary Native American stories..." and it sort of sounded like it was written on my tombstone. I was someone that folks had figured out. I knew that on one hand, it was a huge honor to write stories of today's Native life and I was committed to continue doing that. But on the other hand, I was a person of diverse interests, and I couldn't grow if I didn't try new things. Since then I've sold a few short stories and books that aren't related to that side of my heritage (I'm biracial) including fantasy, tall tale, etc.

inky: do you belong to SCBWI and any other writing societies you suggest?

Cynthia: I belong to SCBWI and its Austin chapter, which I love...such a vibrant, supportive group of people, as well as the Writers' League of Texas, the Authors Guild, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, the Western Writers Association, and the Horror Writers Association. What can I say? I'm social.

Jan: know you do some speaking about writing -- how much of that do you do in a year? Do you do author visits too?

Cynthia: I have a months on, months off plan. I speak a lot in October-early December and March-May. I teach at the Vermont College MFA residencies in January and July and I do the occasional local event in between. I tend to do one state and one or two national conferences a year as well as some public library, bookstore, and school events...It's a mixed bag.

mistys: How many novels do you have under your belt?

Cynthia: Written or published? LOL. My husband and I try to collaborate on this particularly regrettable YA set in historic Mexico, which involved a three-legged dog (the research was beyond us), and I wrote an incredibly, sappy, preachy, boring mid-grade called Two Wings To Fly prior to Rain. I also have my upcoming gothic fantasy YA, Tantalize, and another gothic fantasy YA that will follow it but doesn't have a final title (that one is still in progress). What's ironic was that my original goal was to publish middle grade novels. But I've instead published picture books, an early chapter book, middle grade short stories, a tweener novel, YA short stories, and YA novel--pretty much everything else. I'm not sure why.

Jan: So...tell us about this gothic stuff. Quite a different sort of book -- why did your writing turn in that direction?

Cynthia: Basically, I began by writing what I knew... mid-to-southwestern family stories with strong elders and strong women...some humor and heartbreak. But gothic fantasy is what I read, it's the shelf I go to first when I walk into a bookstore and so that's a whole other side of me that I've been passionate about since junior high.

Jan: So is your gothic very dark/edgy or more mid-dark/wry like Buffy?

Cynthia: It's genre bender, which would be probably closer to Buffy--comedic, suspenseful, mystery, romantic, contemporary, and lush, very sensual, but not sexual. Which isn't to say that I don't have a body count.

Jan: Oh...wow...sounds EXACTLY like the kind of book I love.

Cynthia: That's what we like to hear.

Jan: Okay...back to a pre-writing question...I'm interested in this whole business of creating a town for your characters. Why did you decide to build a fictional town, and how did you go about it?

Cynthia: I created a fictional town for Rain Is Not My Indian Name because the city council was going to be a significant part of the story and I didn't want people in NE KS to think that I was drawing from real-life local politicians. I'd been a young reporter in those communities around Kansas City on both sides of state line, so, I wasn't stretching too far out of my field of familiarity and--though this may surprise you-- novels set in the midwest are actually rare. It turned out to be a really good decision because in the time between the novel being written and released, my cousin's husband was elected to one of those small-town city governments, and that would've probably been a little too close for those searching for that non-existent link. As for how I went about it, the town was something of a hybrid inspired by a number of small towns in which I was a reporter as well as some historically German-American towns that had maintained that tradition (like Frankenmuth, Michigan and Fredericksburg, Texas).

Jan: So how much planning did you do for this fictional town -- maps and such?

Cynthia: I did do a map. It was necessary. My character kept running all over the place, which made a difference even for such minor but telling details as the direction in which the light was falling. Cassidy Rain was a photographer, so she was more attuned to light than most characters and I had a kind of feeling, too, for the economics of each neighborhood that informed the characters and their interpersonal relationships.

inky: how do you know for sure what age/group of readers your book is for? I'm having trouble with that.

Cynthia: Don't worry about. Write the story you want to write and let marketing figure it out for you.

rrmarkewicz: Are you popular in your hometown?

Cynthia: I hope so. Not popular in the homecoming queen sense of the word, but rather as someone who is a reflection of that place and its unique charm.

fohkitten: How do you come up with your character names?

Cynthia: I love names! Jenna evolved from "jingle" I needed a name that worked with the music of the powwow book. Coincidentally it was pulled from the slush pile by a young editorial assistant named...guess what? Jenna! Go figure. The names of the other characters in the book are all family names. (if you're going to name a character after someone real, make sure it's a positive portrayal and check with them first). Rain is a popular name for Indian girls. Quincie from Tantalize was a tribute name. I was inspired to write the book by Bram Stoker's crafting of a Texan character, Quincey P. Morris, as one of his original vampire hunters. My Quincie (with the "ie") is updated and gender flipped. But big picture, I take care to vary first letters, vowels, number of syllables, and I consider each name's meaning.

cocoa: How would you go about creating a whole fictional WORLD--for example in a fantasy or science fiction novel?

Cynthia: I've never done a world that was completely separate from our own, but rather fantasy overlays of the existing world. And I don't know--though I'd never say never--that I'd do that because those aren't the books I'm most passionate about. But I would still start with some real-world basis. For example, my husband and I recently visited a ranch as a basis for a book he's writing, though he'll take a giant leap into fiction from there.

coloradokate: You've said you begin with characters and what they want; do you know how your stories will end when you begin them?

Cynthia: I have absolutely no idea how my novels will end (though I usually do my picture books and short stories); mostly, I'm writing to find out.

inky: what type of books does your hubby write?

Cynthia: Greg's first two novels are comedic books about "smart kids" at a fictional private school in Chicago. Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo is about three kids who take part in their school science fair and end up in their student court because of it. It's loosely based on the Galileo story. Tofu and T. rex is about a girl who is a vegan and goes to live with her cousin's family. They own a German-Polish deli and butcher shop, and her cousin makes sausage competitively. And of course we wrote Santa Knows, which just came out TODAY, together. It's about a boy who tries to debunk the existance of Santa Claus until he's kidnapped by the great man himself. So comedic, smart books with a lot of heart.

Jan: So which one sold a book first -- you or Greg?

Cynthia: I sold a book first, but I also began writing fiction first. My first sale was in 1998. Greg had one of those careers that would make you hate him if he weren't so cute and such a nice guy. He sold the first novel (not counting the three-legged dog fiasco) that he worked on in a two-book deal to Little Brown in 2002 but he'd been reading a lot, going to conferences, and reading all those drafts of mine since I started in '95.

inky: had you been writing very long before that first book got published?

Cynthia: I'd been writing fiction for children for about two and a half years, but I was editor of my junior high and high schoool newspapers, majored in journalism with an English concentration (including courses in fiction, children's literature, etc.), worked young at a variety of newspapers, taughted legal writing in law school, etc. so I already was used to writing daily, writing on deadline, and working with editors. It was great training, and I took a class from Kathi Appelt that was really inspiring when I was very new in the craft of writing for young readers.

gonewest: Do you write very much non-fiction?

Cynthia: I used to write as a journalist, so lots of non-fiction there, and of course there's the author's note in Jingle Dancer. But I haven't tried a creative non-fiction manuscript, though I enjoy it as a reader.

inky: Who published Santa Knows?

Cynthia: Dutton, which is part of the Penguin Group.

DONR: How do you learn your young character voices so they are realistic?

Cynthia: I have several healthy inner children and a pretty good ear. The main thing to remember is to think of each character as an individual. Don't try to write a fourteen-year-old boy -- write Spence from the suburbs with an over-the-top sense of humor and a crush that he doesn't know what to do with. It all goes back to getting out of the way of the characters. The more you know that character as an individual, the better you can channel him/her. I've heard people suggest going to the mall and eavesdropping (which is fun to do in any case) but mostly I recommend not trying to use trendy language because it will be quickly dated, and instead going for a more global feel of the period being reflected.

dsyner: I used a "flashback" as the introduction to the story. Should I make it "Chapter One" to be sure it will be read?

Cynthia: If it takes place immediately before the story really kicks off then just make it a regular chapter one. Even if it's a few months before. I did that with Rain and labeled chapter two "Six Months Later," just so nobody would get lost. But if it's years before, embrace the prologue. Some readers may skip it, there's always that risk. so it's your job to write it in such a compelling way that they just can't skip ahead."

Cocoa: How do you feel about swearing in teen books? Should it be used to make it more realistic, or avoided so school libraries feel safe picking it up?

Cynthia: I think that you should follow the character. It's not a political or market question, it's a writing one. Not all teens swear. Some do. The things to remember are: Stay true to the characters voice.. Remember that cursing (like tears) are "louder" on the page, so you can go with a lighter hand than you would in real life and still have the "feel" that you're going for. If you use profanity a lot, it will lose it's impact. But one approach is to use it for effect. The single best literary use of the F-word in the history of YA literature is in The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin.

Jan: I once heard Nancy Werlin say she blocks out all of her important action scenes...actually acting them out. Do you ever do that?

Cynthia: That's interesting. I need to install a cam in Nancy's house and broadcast this technique on the Internet. She's a tough cookie. And a phenomenal author. But yes, seriously, I do walk around my office, playing different characters. The logistics of an action scene are tough. A lot of what you see written couldn't literally play out in real life."

cocoa: I have a former principal whom I detest. I've thought about using him as a character in a story--cleverly altered, of course--and KILLING HIM OFF in the book. Is that sick?

Cynthia: No, it's cathartic. I suggest changing his gender though. It'll free you up.

fohkitten: What is one mis-step that you would advice not to do?

Cynthia: Don't think of children as "children." Think of them as readers. As characters. As people. Respect them and do your best for them. They deserve it.

inky: Any suggestions on how to get us other (green with envy) writer's to hang in there who've been at for (hate to say it) years and yet to be published?

Cynthia: First, keep in mind that the average time (to the extent I've been able to tell) for the sale of a first book is something like seven-to-twelve years. If you read through the author interviews on my site, you'll find that the path to publication for many of our brightest stars has been a long one. Also realize that this is your golden time, your apprenticeship. You can read and write and improve and debut stronger than we ever could. You are not limited by the expectations of your pre-existing sales figures. Someday, you will be the hot new thing. Get your head up and enjoy the ride.

cocoa: every author or writing instructor I've ever spoken to or read advice from says to avoid adverbs like the black death. Do you agree?

Cynthia: Generally, use the adverb if you need the adverb. But don't use it as a crutch because you haven't thought hard about whether another word will work, a stronger verb, for example. There's no such thing as writing rules, just guidelines. But you should know the rules and their rationales, so you're breaking them for effect rather than by default.

Jan: So...tell us about what you're working on right now.

Cynthia: On a business front, I'm working with my publicist on Santa Knows. If you'd like a sneak peek at the tie-in website, guestspeaker go to http://www.santa-knows.com. And on a professional/industry front I'm working on my fall season speeches and on a creative front, I'm working on a new gothic fantasy YA for Candlewick. I'm a busy woman. But a happy one.

nisey: Do you ever just write a draft, without prewriting?

Cynthia: You bet! I tend to do that more with shorter pieces. But for my new YA, I just dived in. Of course that draft has been trashed and the file deleted, but it gave me an idea of the pre-writing I needed to do to come up with a more solid foundation to build on.

cocoa: Have you written anything in the first person, present tense? I've tried a little of it, and it's very odd, but sort of exhilarating. I don't see much of it out there.

Cynthia: My work in progress has a character in first person present. We'll see it that survives. It's something to do for effect.

nisey: When you trash a draft, do you use any of the original form?

Cynthia: Nope. It's bye-bye draft.

cocoa: What do you think of the National Novel Writing Month coming up in November? Shall we all participate?

Cynthia: It's certainly a motivator. If it works for your process, your vision, go for it! But if it doesn't, don't feel pressured. Everyone has their own pace and process. It's important to both challenge yourself and to honor that. In any case, good luck! I'm rooting for you!

inky: Thanks for the encouragement I've hit a few potholes on the road to success. (shoveling in the tar and patching holes):-)

Jan: And I want to thank you too...now that we're nearing the end. You answered all the questions in the que...you're just a phenom. Speedy typist.

Cynthia: Honey, my fingers are on fire!

Cynthia: I hope everybody is rarin' to write! Do check out my writer resources and blog. keep an eye out for anything that might prove useful or inspirational (or both!).

Cynthia: Thanks to all of you! This has been a wonderful experience! Good night! Write on!


To avoid missing a single article, transcript, or important news announcement, sign up for the Institute’s free weekly e-mail updates. Simply go to this link, type your e-mail address, press SUBMIT, and you’ll be subscribed! http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/email_updates.shtml.

Return to Transcripts

93 Long Ridge Road, West Redding, CT 06896

Home | Writing Course | Short Story  | Full Story | Aptitude Test 
Send Me Info | EnrollOur Instructors | Our Credentials | Sample Lesson
College Credits |
Tax Deductibility | Writer's Bookstore | Contact Us 
Newsletter | Writing Contests | Write for Adults | Free Writer's News
Rx for Writers | Writing Tips  | Transcripts  | Writer's Retreat
Writer's Support  | Student  Center |  Privacy Policy | Web Editor

Copyright © Institute for Writers LLC, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015
No part of the electronic transmission to which this notice is appended may be reproduced or redistributed in any form or manner without the express written permission of Institute for Writers LLC