Behind the Book

Five Questions for Emil Sher, author of YOUNG MAN WITH CAMERA

This debut novel by Emil Sher is quite honestly one of the most extraordinary and challenging books I've ever worked on--an incredible example of voice; a narrative that will ask you to think about the interplay between language and images, what you expect from a narrative, what makes a good ending in books and in life. It came over the transom to my colleague Anne Shone of Scholastic Canada, who shared it with me, and is illustrated throughout with richly evocative black-and-white photos. This past week, it was nominated for Canada's Governor General's Award -- their equivalent of the National Book Award. 

Without further ado, Five Questions for Emil:

1. Tell us a little bit about your book. 

At first blush,

Young Man with Camera

is about bullying. But as T— would likely ask: “What about the second blush?” At its core, I believe this novel is about a lifelong friendship between T— and Sean that is tested in ways that reveal the breadth and depth of their bond. It’s also about a blossoming friendship between T— and a homeless woman named Lucy that is cut short. T— values both relationships, and both are brought into sharp relief at the hands of Ryan, who is not simply a garden-variety bully: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath. T— has long been in the crosshairs of "Joined at the Hip," his name for Ryan and the minions who have tormented him ever since a kitchen fire accident left him with facial burns. His perch on the margins gives T— a singular perspective that he captures in striking black-and-white photographs. When he bears witness to an assault, camera in hand, he is forced to make some very difficult, life-changing decisions. To keep silent is to bury the truth. To speak out is to put the lives of loved ones at risk. For a young man who hungers for the truth, T— moves forward by being true to himself.

2. If this book had a spirit animal or theme song, what would it be and why?

In a world of tortoises and hares, it’s a tortoise that would feel most at home between the covers of this book. Tortoises often go unnoticed; they slowly make their way beneath the radar, so to speak, with none of the eye-catching speed of a hare. I think T— would feel a kinship with a tortoise. They may not make a move for a long time but you can practically hear their thoughts tumbling inside. And like a tortoise, T— needs a protective shell of his own as he navigates the bruising bumps of life.

And while I don’t know if T— would ever finding himself listening to Stephen Sondheim’s "Send in the Clowns," I do know it would resonate with him. Listen to it once and you would think it’s about a trapeze artist who has lost her timing. But, in fact, she is speaking of a whole other loss altogether that has nothing to do with circuses and clowns. There’s what you hear and then there’s what is actually being said. Just as there’s more than meets the eye in a photograph, this song takes on a very different meaning when placed in a larger context. Context, as T— believes, is a synonym for the larger truth. In that way, "Send in the Clowns" is of a piece with T—‘s world: there’s more to it than meets the ear.

3. Please name and elaborate on at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book. 

It is sometimes said that “Character is plot,” which I believe to be true to the extent that I have long been drawn to stories anchored by compelling, complex characters. But a memorable protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the story will engage and keep us connected from start to finish. And so it was with T—, who I took a shining to from the get-go but whose motivations and intentions and reactions and decisions all had to be cracked open and justified and structured so they moved the story forward. One of my favorite photographs in

Young Man with Camera

(artfully shot by David Wyman) is of a bicycle half-buried in snow. “It makes me think of a story that ends before it’s over,” says T—. “There’s no And then.” No matter how rich and varied characters may be, they need an “And then….”

4.  What is your favorite scene in the book?

There are three moments in the novel that have stayed with me, and they are all linked to friendship. There is the scene early in the story when Ruby appears from the back of her father’s store with a paper towel she offers to T—. It’s a lovely gesture, made all the lovelier because of the loveless humiliation we know T— has just endured at the hands of Joined at the Hip.

T— is not accustomed to a lot of physical contact, other than being tripped and shoved, which makes what Lucy does all the more meaningful. During the scene where they look at a photograph together — "Girl with Striped Face" — Lucy reaches out and gently touches T— ’s scars, without judgment.

T— and Sean have long shared the same boat. We learn that boat is made from different stuff when T— describes the importance, the necessity of being by his best friend’s side as Sean wades through some very difficult waters: “If there’s something you really don’t want to do, it helps to have someone help you not do it. Not right away. Not for a while. Not until you’re ready.”

5. What are you working on now?

Is it premature to share a working title?


: a fish-out-of-water story about a seventeen-year-old single father.

Behind the Book AND Five Questions for Megan Morrison, author of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL

Megan Morrison

and I met in 2003, via our mutual friend Melissa Anelli of the Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron, and I read an early draft of


 in 2004. I liked its characters and action a lot -- Rapunzel descending from her tower against her will, and traveling across the land of Tyme with a thief named Jack -- but to my eye, it didn't have enough emotional and world-building depth to elevate it from "cute and smart" to "real and meaningful," and I thought Meg could do more with it. So I told her that, in a three-page editorial letter, and offered to look at a revision when she was ready.

I did not think at the time--and nor did Meg--that this readiness would take eight years. But when she contacted me about the ms. again in 2012, she said that she had rewritten the book, "revised the rewrite, plotted the entire series in detail from back to front, and then revised it again. . . . Though the plot sounds similar to what it was, the book is very different, with a cast of characters who are fully realized and motivated, including the peripheral characters, who don't come to the fore until later books in the series. I love it and believe in it." I had never forgotten


and in fact had been hoping for this e-mail for eight years--so I asked to see it again.

And this time, I loved it and believed in it too, as Meg was 100% right in her estimation of her revised novel. I adore fairy tales in part because the transformations they contain speak to some of our deepest human stories and relationships, and my favorite retellings round out those transformations with complex psychology and world-building, while honoring the readerly pleasures of wonder or romance or connection at their heart. The new


 kept all the charm of Rapunzel and Jack's banter and the cleverness of the land of Tyme, whose history, geography, and even the resulting economics and sociology have all been fully thought through. But it achieved the reality and deeper meaning I'd been hoping for, thanks to Rapunzel's complex relationship with her Witch, whom she truly loves, and who has good reason to keep her in the tower; and Rapunzel's own process of growing up, finding out hard truths, and yet moving forward into wholeness. The book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me intensely happy as a reader; and since it came out earlier this month, both Meg and I have been delighted by its critical reception -- including two starred reviews! -- which has praised both its many pleasures and that emotional depth. (It's also an Best Book of the Month

for May.) Publishing it has reminded me yet again:  Good things come to editors who wait.

Four more notes, before I share Meg's Five Questions:

  • You can actually see a rare scene of the editor and author at work, sort of, in Melissa Anelli's Harry, A History. Page 79 documents a writing weekend among the three of us that took place at my apartment, where Meg was working on Grounded, Melissa was writing for the Leaky Cauldron, and I was editing A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce, another great fairy-tale retelling. (And also making pancakes.)
  • This entire series of five-question posts was actually inspired by Meg herself, as she's written "Five Reasons to Read _________" posts like this one on her blog for years. 
  • Meg wrote about her side of this story at Literary Rambles and in this interview, which also reflects on her experience as a Harry Potter fan and a fanfiction author.
  • And Meg and her friend Kristin Brown, who's a professional geographer, talk about their collaboration in creating "plausible geography" for Tyme in this fascinating interview.

Five Questions for Megan Morrison

1.      Tell us a little bit about your book.

It’s the story of Rapunzel – the hair, the tower, the witch – except that my Rapunzel loves her tower and doesn’t want to leave it. She has everything she wants and thinks she is the luckiest person in the world. Until things go wrong, and she learns otherwise.

2.      If this book had a theme song and/or a spirit animal, what would it be and why? 

I actually have a whole playlist for



It’s here on Spotify.

If I were to choose just one song, it would have to be “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell). This is Witch’s promise to Rapunzel: that she will allow nothing to divide them – that she’ll rescue her from anything. It’s a very different song at the beginning of the book than it is at the end.

3.      Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

Sometimes, the idea for a story will come before the writer is ready to meet it. That doesn’t mean that the writer should stop writing or give up on the idea, but it means that the story won’t mature until the writer does. I had the idea for


long before I was equipped to write it well. Life experiences – in particular becoming a mother and a teacher – were necessary. Not that those particular experiences are prerequisites for writing. Far from it. They were just necessary for me. They changed me in big, important ways, and strengthened me as both a storyteller and as a professional. My work ethic and my openness to criticism are vastly improved over what they were ten years ago. I have hardened and mellowed both, in the ways that I needed to. 

4.      What is your favorite scene in the book?

Rapunzel’s conversation with Witch at the end.

That’s a hard question, though. Whenever Rapunzel and Jack are talking to each other, I am delighted.

5.      What are you working on now?

The second book in the Tyme series! A different fairy tale, set in the same world. Many characters who appear in


will show up again. 

Read more and purchase



Five Questions for Trent Reedy, author of BURNING NATION

(The first in a new series of brief interviews with authors of forthcoming books)

1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Burning Nation is the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy. It continues the story of seventeen-year-old Idaho Army National Guardsman PFC Danny Wright and his friends as they are stuck in the middle of a tense stand-off between the state of Idaho and the federal government of the United States. In the first book, Divided We Fall, Idaho has voted to nullify the Federal Identification Card Act. When Danny’s National Guard unit is sent to quell a protest/riot resulting from this nullification, he accidentally fires his rifle, which causes other people to shoot, leaving twelve dead and nine wounded. The president demands an investigation and prosecution. The governor of Idaho refuses to cooperate, saying that he gave a lawful order to the National Guardsmen under his command.

Burning Nation begins right where the first book left off, with the president sending the military to force Idaho to comply with federal law. Right from the beginning, Danny and his friends are caught up in the fight, but as the country descends into the chaos of the Second American Civil War, losses begin to take their toll. It becomes hard to understand what has been won, but easy to see what’s been lost. As the sacrifices mount and betrayals abound, Danny and his friends begin to think about the wounds they’ve suffered, inside and out.

It’s an action-packed book that continues to explore what happens when America’s current political divide widens into tomorrow’s nightmare, and it’s alarming how many real-life headlines seem to have been predicted by Divided We Fall and Burning Nation.

2. If this book had a theme song, what would it be and why?

Ten years ago, when my fellow soldiers and I were serving in Farah Province in Afghanistan, we were struck by how much the landscape resembled that featured in the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. That movie features a song by Tina Turner called "We Don’t Need Another Hero." My fellow soldiers would joke about this song, with one man saying, “We don’t need another hero” and another replying, “We don’t even know the way home.” The video is a bit dated and cheesy, but if you listen to the words, the song really fits as a commentary on the brutality and waste of war that is very appropriate for Burning Nation.

3. Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

When I began work on Burning Nation, I was under the naive assumption that writing the book would be easier because I had already finished Divided We Fall. I knew the characters, the setting, and at least the situation that led to the events in Burning Nation. I should have known that Burning Nation would be as significant if not a greater challenge than the first book. One of the challenges came from the situation the characters face. Throughout most of Burning Nation Danny and his friends must endure a federal military occupation of their small northern Idaho town. With U.S. soldiers hunting for them all the time, their movements, and thus my options for the kinds of scenes I could include, felt rather limited. I began to feel almost as claustrophobic as Danny and his fellow soldiers.

Another challenge with writing Burning Nation was that it was the second part of a story that already had its first part on the market. I was facing a situation that was new to me, that of having public feedback on characters and other aspects of the larger Divided We Fall story, while I was writing that story’s second installment. It felt like having many, sometimes too many, advisors in my office with me while I worked. Cheryl was wise, as she usually is, when she encouraged me to stop looking at reviews and reader comments as I worked on Burning Nation.

4. What is your favorite scene in the book?

I’m really quite happy with a lot of the scenes in Burning Nation, so I’m going to cheat and list two. First, since Burning Nation isn’t merely an action/war book, but is a piece which, I hope, encourages the reader to think about the terrible nature of war and its effects on those who live through it, I’d like to point out a scene that happens after Danny Wright has been through terrible physical and emotional torture. He is out of his mind from sleep deprivation and other torments, and when his one-time rival TJ bursts into his cell to rescue him, Danny isn’t sure if what is happening is even real. He’s confused and kind of cries, “Travis?” Travis Jones realizes that Danny is seriously messed up and it’s going to be harder to rescue him than he and his friends supposed. It’s a small moment, but I hope there’s a lot of emotion in that simple question, that exhausted and near-breaking-point, “Travis?”

And since I love some good action, I’m also quite happy with a hand-to-hand fight scene near the end of the book. It’s a fight between Danny and a U.S. Army major, a desperate fight to the death where Danny has to make an important decision about how deep into the war he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he wants to save. In addition to the moral question the fight raises, I just think it’s a clear scene, a tense and suspenseful fight. And the conclusion of the scene is really quite chilling.

5. What are you working on now?

I am hard at work on the third book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, entitled The Last Full Measure. The story follows America’s further final decline into a terrible civil war, and the difficult consequences this has for Danny Wright and his friends. I’m having lots of fun working on it, and it’s on schedule for a 2016 release.

For more about this book, including an excerpt, reviews, and purchase information, visit the Burning Nation page on the Arthur A. Levine Books website. 

A New Episode of the Narrative Breakdown & My NYPL Panel on Native American YA Literature

Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago:   me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!

A Nomination! A Third Printing! & 2013 Editorial Year in Review

I'm pleased to report that The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascomb, is one of five finalists for YALSA's Excellence in Nonfiction Award!

The development of this book can be directly traced back to an SCBWI conference I attended -- Whispering Pines 2011 in Rhode Island (which was an excellent conference all around). During an off hour, I wandered into the conference center's library, and someone had left a copy of an adult book called Hunting Eichmann by Neal. I started skimming the book and immediately grew intrigued: I'd been thinking about how much I loved the narrative nonfiction in The New Yorker and how interesting and fun it would be to publish for a younger audience, and the hunt for Adolf Eichmann combined history, mystery, spywork, and Nazis in one terrific, suspenseful, high-stakes story. When I got back to New York, I reached out to Neal, proposing a YA edition of Hunting Eichmann. We embarked on a very enjoyable collaboration where we both learned a lot (me about photo research, especially -- a topic worthy of a whole blog post all its own), and the resulting book, with a awesome foiled cover by Phil Falco, came out in September. You can read the opening pages here.

While I'm posting:  I'm also pleased to announce I've ordered a third printing of Second Sight, which should be available for sale in early January. (The book is out of stock until then.) Thanks to all of you who've supported it thus far!

Finally, a quick look back at all of my 2013 books, with plenty of time left to order for Christmas (hint hint):

  • The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman: Pride & Prejudice in 1923 Chinatown!
  • The Path of Names by Ari Goelman:  Math, mysteries, mazes, magic, & even murder at a summer camp! This was named to Booklist's rolls of both Top Ten First Novels and Top Ten Religious & Spirituality Novels for Youth.
  • Zoe's Room (No Sisters Allowed) by Bethanie Deeney Murguia:  Two sisters. One room. Stuff just got real. 
  • Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg:  A gay book for the "Glee" generation, about being out, being proud, and being ready for something else. 
  • If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth:  A "brohemian rhapsody" (Eric's phrase) about a Tuscarora Native American boy and a white Air Force kid discovering their shared love of rock music, and the complications that ensue.
  • The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb:  Hey, did you hear it was nominated for YALSA's Excellence in Nonfiction Award?
  • The City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (sequel to his excellent The Savage Fortress):  Ash Mistry, weapon of the goddess Kali, goes to Kolkata, and the city will never be the same. 
And I'm excited about all the equally great things on the docket for the new year. This will probably be my last post for 2013, as I'm leaving for my belated honeymoon (in India, in fact!) on Saturday . . . so I wish you all the very best for the holidays, and a happy new beginning to 2014!

All About THE FIRE HORSE GIRL: Behind the Book, Q&A, & Giveaway!

I owe you an apology, dear readers. Due to the blog hiatus I've taken for most of the year thus far, it's entirely possible that you have gone an entire five months without hearing about Kay Honeyman's The Fire Horse Girl -- and if that is so, then you have been MISSING OUT. Because while this book isn't fantasy, it features many of the things I love best from the girl-power-fantasy novels that are dear to my and so many readers' hearts (think Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Bunce, Kristen Cashore):
  • A heroine who's stubborn, willful, kind, outspoken, out of step with her society -- and utterly wonderful
  • A plot that offers her the chance to make a better life for herself, if she has the courage to take it
  • A love interest who's equally well-developed, and has an agenda of his own
  • Terrific characters all around
  • Tense action scenes
  • Swoony romance scenes
All tied up in a story that sheds light on a too-little-known fact of American history:  the existence of Angel Island, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island, where Chinese immigrants (and usually Chinese immigrants only) could be held for weeks, months, or even years. But the book is never heavy -- only real. As a matter of fact, as I'm thinking about it, I may have done you a FAVOR by holding out on you so long on this book, because it would make delightful summer reading:  meaty enough that your brain doesn't rot with the sweetness, but still pleasurable all the way down.

Kay Honeyman is just as much fun in person as she is on the page, and I'm glad to have her here for a Q&A.

How did you come to write The Fire Horse Girl? I always have trouble backing up to the beginning of writing The Fire Horse Girl. My first instinct is to say that the story began to form when I heard about Angel Island. It was a slice of American history and specifically America’s immigration history I only discovered as an adult.

But, I wouldn’t have attached so strongly to that setting if my husband and I weren’t in the midst of adopting a child from China. I was not just drawn to the place, but its stories because my son would have his own immigration story. At first, I imagined all the wonderful things that the child would gain by coming to America. When I looked at the story from my perspective, my son Jack was gaining a home and a family. He would live in land of opportunity and possibilities. But when I considered his point-of-view, he was coming to a strange house in a strange country to live with strange people. It opened my eyes to the price that people pay to immigrate.

If you take the inspiration back one step further, it started with a deep love of stories in general. I used to lay the big books on my parents’ shelves in my lap and read every two and three-letter-word that I knew.
The Fire Horse Girl probably came from all of those layers of inspiration plus a lot of work and a little serendipity.

What sort of research did you do? The kind that piles up in boxes and notebooks all around the house. The kind that involves Friday night trips to the library because I really need to find out the names of ships that travelled between China and San Francisco in 1923. The kind that you have to shake yourself out of because you have a story to write.

I read novels set in China like Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. I spent hours on the Angel Island Immigration Foundation website. I read Chinese poetry and took Chinese language classes because the rhythm of structure of the Chinese language is very different from English, and I wanted to have a feel for it. I also researched the poems on the walls in the barracks at Angel Island. I filled notebooks and files with picture of the dorms at Angel Island, kitchens in 1900 China, and alleys in Chinatown. I wrote lists of details in the margins of scenes. I poured through Arnold Genthe’s pictures of Chinatown before the fire that destroyed Old Chinatown in 1906 (same year that Jade Moon was born) because I wanted to dig through the rubble that formed the foundation of the Chinatown Jade Moon would have to navigate.

I think the most important part of my research was my trip to China to pick up Jack. It isn’t that I picked up specific details that I put in the book, but it gave me a richer understanding of China and the Chinese. It gave me a peek at the rhythms of life, community, and family.

What was the most difficult part of writing or revising the novel for you? What flowed the easiest? The first draft is the hardest for me. Writing that initial version is frustrating because it never lives up to the image of the story I have in my head. It doesn’t even come close. Neither does the second or third or twenty-third draft, but in later drafts you have progress you can measure. For me, a first draft is just bad, it isn’t better than the last, or moving closer to the story I want to tell. It is just messy and so very, very wrong.

On the other hand, I love revision. It is exciting to find the right fix for glitch in the story or develop a moment into its full potential. I love watching the rough edges of a story smooth into this glassy surface that the reader can skate across.

I especially love the moment in the revision process when you aren’t guessing anymore, when you aren’t experimenting, when the story is more right than wrong. It feels like turning into your neighborhood after a long journey. It doesn’t mean the work is over, but there’s the sense that you are heading to a place you’ve been trying to get to for a long time. 

How much of the book did you have planned out before you wrote it? Are you a plotter or a pantser generally? Uhhg, you had to ask. And I tried so hard to hide it. I am a pantser who tries desperately to be a plotter. I am a very organized person. I love lists and papers stacked across the top of my desk. I make multiple outlines, but the story strays so far from the outline that I’m not sure I get to claim the title of plotter. Maybe I am just a horrible plotter. Is there a category for that?

I do like one element of being a pantser/horrible plotter. I tend to have a very fluid vision of the story. I’m more likely to see why something could happen then why it couldn’t. And I have a high tolerance for revisions. I don’t have any illusions that something must happen.

Admit it:  You’re a Fire Horse girl too, right? (I am an Earth Horse myself!) Even if you aren’t:  What qualities do you most and least admire in Jade Moon? Are they qualities you yourself share? You are an Earth Horse! Did you know we are both hard-working signs? However, your sense of humor is far superior to mine.

I am a Water Ox – patient, dependable, determined. I would make a disastrous character in a novel because in a crisis I make a to-do list and label color-coded file folders. So, I am pretty much the opposite of Jade Moon, but I admire her strength and spirit of determination. I also admire her big dreams and the way she ignores the impossibility of them.

I come from a family of strong women. My sister is a Fire Dragon and my son Jack and my mother are both Fire Pigs. I love people with a fire inside them. They bring fresh perspective and passion to life. They aren’t afraid to burn through the old to see if there is something better behind it. 

The trait I most share with Jade Moon is probably the one that gets her in the most trouble – her stubbornness. However, a little stubbornness can help you hold your own, teach eighth-grade, and write a book.

What books have been the most influential in your reading and writing lives? I open every book expecting to be delighted, and I take in some element from most books that I read. I would probably make a terrible editor, but I make a great reader.

I love Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. I love any book that looks at a society – F. Scott Fitgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Mitchell.

There are also so many talented contemporary authors in YA.  Elizabeth Eulberg (Lonely Hearts Club, Take a Bow, Prom and Prejudice, and Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality) creates characters with flaws that just make them more relatable and more charming. Paul Volponi (The Final Four, Rikers High, Rucker Park Setup, Black and White) packs sweeping stories into tight settings and timelines. Whole stories get threaded through the overtime of a Final Four basketball game. It is like a gritty Hemingway if Hemingway wrote about basketball instead of bullfighting. I could go on and on. The more I write, the more I find to admire in other writers.

I also keep a few books on writing at my elbow. My two favorites are Second Sight (I am unabashedly slipping it into this interview because I tell everyone how amazing it is). Since I can’t email you every time I have a minor dilemma or a major nervous breakdown, I keep it close. I also love my Synonym Finder (love, adore, cherish, esteem, prize, etc.).

What are you reading now? And writing? I just finished 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody. It is always fun to watch teenagers realize that their potential soars far above people’s expectations. My first summer read is going to be Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

I am working on a book set in West Texas. It is about Friday night football, small towns, and politics. It is full of women with sweet smiles and sharp tongues, high-stakes competition on and off the field, and a love that takes a few detours. I want to tell the story of a girl who discovers the beauty in life’s imperfections.


And what the heck, we'll do another giveaway here too, for a proper hardcover edition this time. Calculate your Chinese Zodiac sign and tell me both what you are and whether that (or any other form of astrological sign) matches your personality. (I don't think I'm a particularly notable Horse, for instance, but I am totally Queen of the Virgos -- a similarity between sign and personality that fascinates me, even as I think most daily horoscopes are bunk.)

All About THE PATH OF NAMES: Behind the Book, Q&A, & Giveaway!

Because I have the last name "Klein" and I live in New York City, a lot of people I meet here assume I'm Jewish -- an assumption that I'm fine with, even as I called myself the "imprint shiksa" for my first few years at Arthur A. Levine Books. So while it's entirely possible that Ari Goelman's agent sent me the manuscript for The Path of Names because she thought I might have a religious connection to the material, I fell in love with it for my own reasons:
  • Some of the realest kid characters I've ever read in a novel, with dialogue that exactly captures the way kids can switch from snarkiness to sensitivity in a turn.
  • With that, a terrific sense of humor and jokes that made me laugh out loud more than once.
  • A 12-year-old heroine -- Dahlia Sherman -- who loves performance magic and math more than popularity and fashion, and who holds herself a little apart from her peers in part because of that lack of shared interests, and in part because she fears their rejection. (This was probably my real point of identification with the book, I do confess it.)
  • A totally original combination of elements:  A contemporary Jewish summer camp story set in Pennsylvania and starring Dahlia, crossed with a story about a yeshiva student named David in the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1930s, both shot through with fantasy and mystery.
  • A terrific title. 
  • A kind of magic I had never seen before in a fantasy novel -- and when you've read as many fantasy novels as I have, that's saying something. 
The challenge such books face in the publishing industry is that they'll often be regarded as "only for Jewish readers" -- just as books about girls are only for girls, or books about gay kids as only for gay kids, or books about Latinos are only for Latinos. If you aren't yourself Jewish, then you should read it and help us explode those stereotypes; and if you are Jewish -- and especially if you went to a Jewish camp as Ari Goelman did -- then you'll find even more to recognize and enjoy in the book. It is certainly the only book I've edited ever to be written up in The Times of Israel, as "A Jewish Harriet Potter." And it's also received a starred review from Booklist.

I'm delighted to welcome Ari Goelman to my blog for a Q&A.

What novels were the biggest influence on you when you were a young reader (ages 8-18)? As a middle-grade reader I loved the Susan Cooper ‘The Dark is Rising’ series, especially the novel The Dark Os Rising. I also loved the book The Silver Crown, and (as I got older) pretty much any high fantasy I could get my hands on, starting with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and ending with ... whatever the latest high fantasy was. As a slightly older teen reader I discovered Steven Brust and Roger Zelazny – especially loving Brust’s To Reign In Hell and Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Which, now that I think about it, were both pretty centrally concerned with magic and religion, albeit in a totally different way than The Path of Names.

There are so many interesting ideas packed into this book -- summer camp, Kabbala, magic (real-world and fantasy), mazes, Lower East Side history. . . . Where did it start for you? How did these other elements develop in it? I think it started with a summer camp story, and evolved from there. Once I decided to set the story in a Jewish summer camp, I thought, “Hmm. Jewish summer camp – Jewish magic. That seems to make sense.”

Then, once I started thinking about Jewish magic, that naturally led to Kabbala and the rest. I’ve always been interested in the somewhat forgotten elements of Jewish folklore. I was raised as a conservative Jew where the party line was, ‘We don’t believe in magic. Or the afterlife. Or demons. Or witches...’ I was a young adult before I started to come across references to all the Jewish superstitions that saturated the Jewish world for centuries before the Enlightenment.

Described in that way, it might make me seem a little smarter than I am. Here is the way it actually worked: I’d be in synagogue for a cousin’s bar mitzvah or such, and there’d be a mention of an anecdote in the Talmud about a rabbi hurling lightning at another rabbi. The lesson would supposedly be something about tolerance or arrogance. But I would sit there thinking, ‘A rabbi hurling lightning? That is so cool! I would love to read a fantasy story about that.’

As far as the parts set in the Lower East Side, my grandfather grew up in the 1930s Lower East Side, and I always loved the stories that he and my great uncles would tell about their boyhoods in the tenements. When I was older I discovered that he had visited the spot in rural Pennsylvania which ultimately became my summer camp some fifty years before I was a camper there. I loved the thought of somehow combining those two milieus.

The fantasy magic in the book is based in what I understand to be a very esoteric Jewish religious practice – the Kabbala – but the book isn’t religious at all. Dahlia and the other kids spend very little time contemplating God. You also have a provocative epigraph where you quote Bernie Cloud:  “Religion is just magic, but with more words.” How do your own relationships with religion and magic emerge in The Path of Names? I think I very much share the ambivalence towards Judaism (and organized religion in general) that is evidenced in The Path of Names. It was fun to write a story where all the Jewish magic works. The world would be so much simpler if you could verify religious belief systems with some sort of physical manifestation ... say, calling down lightning on your enemies. Religion aside, I find magic and the supernatural creeps into most everything I write. I’m not totally sure why this is. Like I mentioned before, I’ve always been an avid reader of fantasy literature. Maybe it comes from my general interest in ideas of power and resistance, especially when they’re operating in ways that are secret, or at least hard to see. I have this sense (which I think is pretty broadly shared in contemporary society) that power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few in ways that are hard for the rest of us to see, let alone to resist. Also -- let’s face it -- magic is fun. It would be fun to be a thirteen-year-old with the power to change things, even if the odds seemed stacked against you.  

What is your favorite part of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, etc.) and why? Oh geez. That’s a hard one. On the one hand, writing the first draft is definitely the most difficult part for me. You’re staring at the blank page, and you have so far to go before it’s done, and it probably won’t be any good anyway, and shouldn’t you work on a new blog post, or maybe go start on dinner or something? Contrast that to revising, where you have a manuscript and you’re reading it and making it better. On some level, I’m scared of the blank page in a way that I’m not scared of revising. Now here’s the complicated part – difficult as it is for me, the mingled feeling of fear and distaste ... and excitement when I write that first draft is the reason I write. That feeling of creating something new is the best part. If I go a few days without writing something new, I start worrying that I’m never going to write anything again. I don’t like that feeling. 

A couple of reviews have praised the book for having the main character, Dahlia, be a smart girl who loves math. Did you envision the protagonist of the book as a girl from the beginning, or was that a deliberate choice later in the process? What challenges did you face, if any, in writing across gender, and how did you overcome them? I always saw the protagonist as a girl. When I wrote the short story that eventually grew into The Path of Names, I had this very clear memory of a girl at my summer camp complaining about how another girl wasn’t friends with her any more. I ended up making Dahlia far more independent than that girl, but there was never any question that the main character would be female. The challenges that I faced had to do with uniquely female things – for instance, how much would a thirteen-year-old girl notice the curviness or the lack of curviness of her peers? Being married to a former thirteen-year-old girl who is happy to answer these kinds of questions was invaluable in overcoming this obstacle.

You have a five-year-old and a set of very young twins at home. Plus you teach. How do you work in any writing time? Do you have a set schedule or process? The short answer is: it’s hard. Not just to work in writing time, but to make the most of the writing time I have, given the exhaustion of being a working parent with three small children. More often than not, one or more of our beautiful little people is sick or getting a tooth or just generally dissatisfied with their sleeping arrangements and would like to express their displeasure repeatedly at 1:00 a.m. 1:30 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and so on. I’ve discovered that I can do a pretty good job at some tasks when I’m tired, but writing a novel is not one of them. There’s too much to hold in your head, and too much concentration required. Having said all that, I do try to write to a set schedule, as I think the alternative is a ‘no writing’ schedule. I am still making progress in my ongoing writing projects, just not nearly as fast as I would like. 

What are you reading now?  I just finished reading Steven King’s The Wind at the Keyhole which I thought was great, especially the two stories-within-a-story. I have just started Seer of Shadows by Avi, but I’m still too early into it to have formed an opinion. I’m also reading Harry Potter to my five-year-old (who would probably like me to point out that she’s almost six), and I’m enjoying it through her eyes all over again. 

Please visit Ari's website.


GIVEAWAY! Though The Path of Names is in stores now (hint hint hint & hint), you can win one of my three remaining copies of an ARC of the book by leaving a comment below with any of the following:  one thing that you've never seen in a fantasy before and you'd like to; your own provocative epigraph (or epitaph, if you prefer); or the identity that people mistake you for based on your name, if applicable.

Q&A: Trent Reedy, author of STEALING AIR

PSA for Writers:  Even if you usually skip the Q&As on this blog, you should read this one, particularly what Trent has to say about the Bechard Factor below.
Tell us the origin story and history of Stealing Air.

Stealing Air is a story I have been working with on and off for about twenty years.  It began as a very short and simple story that was my response to a sixth grade English class assignment.  Our challenge was to write any story we wished about "Freaky Frankie," this cartoonish Frankenstein's monster we were shown. I knew all the other kids would come up with scary or Halloween stories, so I wanted to write something different.  I wrote a piece called "Flyboys," in which Frankie was just a tough guy who picked on three boys whose passion was building a tiny skateboard-mounted airplane that two of the boys hoped to fly around on.  "Flyboys" was a big hit, and I was asked to read it at a sixth grade Halloween party.

I never let go of the core idea for that story, and sometime in my early twenties, I expanded "Flyboys" into a novel-length manuscript.  In the novel version, I developed the skateboard-based airplane, added a neat friendship dynamic, and gave the protagonist a romantic interest.  I had high hopes that this would be my first published novel.

However, when I was sent to Afghanistan with the Iowa Army National Guard in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, all of my plans changed.  I became fascinated by the country I had been sent to help reconstruct, and I made a vow in my heart to one particularly inspiring Afghan girl, promising I would do all I could to tell her story.  Thus, instead of Flyboys, the adventure story of three sixth-grade boys from Iowa who become friends while building a plane in a secret workshop, my first published novel was Words in the Dust, the story of a young Afghan girl who struggles to find peace and lasting meaning in post-Taliban, Afghanistan.

Writing Words in the Dust was a very serious, emotionally demanding process, and so when I set out to write my second novel, I needed something more light-hearted and adventurous.  Flyboys was just the right story.  However, reading that old novel-length story after all I had learned at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and after what I’d learned working with you, I realized Flyboys would need to be completely rewritten.   Most of the plot and characters remained the same, but the resulting novel Stealing Air is incredibly different, a lot better than its prototype stories. 

How was writing your second novel both different from and similar to writing your first?

The process of getting a novel published can be very difficult and usually requires a lot of work.  In my long journey to publication, I felt ready for the extensive revisions I would have to do to prepare my first novel Words in the Dust for submission to publishers.  There are many magazine articles and blog posts about this.

What the articles and blogs did not prepare me for was the awesome amount of work in revision that takes place after signing the book contract.  The course of revisions and copy edits was exhausting but exhilarating.  When it was over and Words in the Dust was a real book on the shelf, I was pleased with the result, knowing I had done my very best with that novel.

In life we often have the tendency to look at the past with a filter that can remove from our immediate memory a lot of the difficulties and hardships we faced in a given time.  This filter enables some people to long for the “good old days” of high school which can be remembered with fondness, as long as they don’t think about all the old social pressures and tedious homework assignments.

I think to a certain extent, I was looking back on my first novel experience with a similar filter.  I dove into writing and revising Stealing Air with the idea that I was a more experienced writer, thinking that the process should be smoother and easier.  What I learned is that, for me at least, every new novel presents its own unique complications.  It’s like starting over.  And how wonderful is that?  I loved the challenge of writing and revising Words in the Dust.  After the initial sense of surprise and frustration in dealing with Stealing Air’s issues, I eventually embraced my chance to relive the “good old days” of preparing another novel for publication.

Who were your best friends when you were in sixth grade? What was the worst trouble you ever got up to together?

I love that quote from the old film Stand By Me: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve...does anyone?”

I’ve been blessed in my life with many great friends, so I don’t want to say that the peak of my friendships was in the sixth grade, but it was a special kind of friendship in fifth and sixth grade.  Maybe it was because hanging out with the guys in those days was so new.  For the first time, we didn’t need our parents looking over our shoulders so much.  Everything felt very new and full of potential.

We’d head out of town on the old abandoned railroad tracks, and find our own world away from adult influence, at the Runaway Bridge, this limestone railroad bridge that crossed a little creek.  There we would mess around, trying with little success to avoid falling into the water and mud.  Unfortunately, this bridge has since been destroyed, but I keep a piece of its limestone on my bookshelf as a reminder of those times.

We never found ourselves in too much trouble, but I remember sometime around sixth grade, I was staying overnight at my friend Tim’s house.  We always thought it was fun to sneak out after his parents had gone to sleep.  I don’t know why this seemed like such an adventure.  In a little farm town with just over 1,300 people, there wasn’t much to do late at night.  I know that for some reason we were terrified of being caught by Dysart’s lone police officer.  On one night we had sneaked out with illegal fireworks, a few “black cats,” and planned to set them off at different places around town.  It was a breezy night, so we had trouble getting the fuse to light.  Our bright idea was to simply shorten the fuse.  As a result, the thing went off before we had our chance to make a getaway.  It was a tiny little pop, really, but we were sure everyone in town had heard it, and that the cop was on his way.  We sprinted away from the scene of our crime, running through the dark and crossing a street by the elementary school.

From behind me, I heard the sound of a traffic sign rattling as if Tim had slapped it while running past.  I turned and hissed at him to keep the noise down, but he was no longer following me.  I went back, and found him lying in a fetal position on the pavement.  As I whispered frantically, trying to get him to get up and run so that we could avoid capture, he just let out the pained, sickening groan that all boys come to understand at least once in their lives.  “I racked myself,” he said.  Tim had hit the sign pole at a dead sprint, the steel crushing him all the way down to where it filled his whole body with a guy’s cold dull paralyzing pain.  After a while, I managed to get him back on his feet so that we could go back to his house, but for the rest of the night he kind of just stared off into space, not the same guy.

Plot, character, stakes, voice, theme, setting . . . What aspect of the novel did you struggle most with, and how was that resolved? Which one came most easily on this book?

One big advantage I had with Stealing Air is that after so many years, I was very familiar with the characters and the settings, having lived in Riverside, Iowa for nine years, and small Iowa towns like it for my whole life.

The biggest challenge was in determining what was at stake for the characters.  My initial draft simply accepted that Brian and Alex would want to get their airplane flying simply because flying is so cool.  That may be true, and it may be the way Brian, Alex, and Max would all really feel, but story reality is a bit different from real reality, and you helped me understand that for the reader to care about whether or not the boys could make their plane fly, there had to be serious consequences or rewards for success or failure.

We tried several different options before centering the stakes on the Plastisteel plane being the key to saving Brian’s and Max’s parents’ company.  This worked out great, because it required that I keep bringing back Mrs. Douglas, a surprise character who hadn’t appeared in earlier versions of the book.  I love that character, and my only regret with Mrs. Douglas is that I couldn’t figure out how to bring her into the book even more.

You and I talked a lot about what you call “the Bechard Factor” on this book. Could you describe that for me and how it played out here?

I had the honor of working under the guidance of author Margaret Bechard in my final semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, while I revised Words in the Dust.  In that novel, a character named Meena befriends the protagonist Zulaikha, teaching the girl to read and write, introducing her to classic Persian poetry. 

In early drafts, Meena had no name, was blind, and lived in a cave.  Margaret asked me why she had to live in a cave.  Why was she blind?  Why did she not even have pencil and paper for Zulaikha to use in her lessons?  I explained that the woman was old and her sight had just gone, that she lived in a cave because her house had been destroyed in the war.

Margaret Bechard patiently explained that she wasn’t asking me what fictional circumstances within the story made the nameless blind woman live in a cave, but that she wanted to know why I had chosen to make this character be this way?  What did the story gain by my making the character that way?  She was asking me to consider how the story would be affected if the woman was very different.

I eventually named the woman after the Afghan feminist martyr Meena, letting Meena live in the back of her own sewing shop.  This improved believability and made it much easier for me to get Zulaikha away from her house for her lessons.  It was, however, difficult to make those changes, to look at the plot and characters from outside the story, to break away from the way the story was first written and revise for the best effect.  The difficulty of the act of looking at the story from the outside to consider radical changes from early drafts is what I have dubbed the “Bechard Factor.”

Stealing Air had been with me a lot longer than Words in the Dust.  By the time I began revising it, I had been kicking around the original draft of the novel in my head for a decade.  So when Cheryl asked me why Brian wants to fly this experimental plane, why Brian wanted to make friends so much, and why Brian’s family had even moved to Riverside, Iowa, I struggled to find answers.  The answers had been so self evident in the story as it had been for so long that it was a challenge, once again, to step outside of the story and consider new possibilities.

Stealing Air is far richer after overcoming the Bechard Factor.  In the original version, Brian moves to Riverside with his mother after his father has abandoned his family.  Reasoning that such abandonment would be too emotionally heavy, I changed it so that the family moved to Riverside after Brian’s father lost his job.  But then the father was too depressed.  Finally, when I needed another reason for Brian needing to fly the experimental plane, it was decided that Brian’s father moved to Riverside to start a company with Max’s mother.  That was a breakthrough change that really brought a lot of elements together very nicely.

If you could own any plane, what would it be? And what’s your favorite skateboard trick?

There are a lot of planes I would love to try out, but if I could own one, I think I would absolutely love the world’s smallest twin-engine airplane, the low-winged Colomban Cri-Cri:

I really admire people like Brian who can pull off amazing skateboard tricks.  When I was younger, I had a cheap skateboard that I bought secondhand.  I would mostly challenge myself to downhill runs where the skateboard would be zipping down a steep hill very fast.  Fortunately, I lived in Iowa where the hills aren’t too extreme.  There are hills and mountains where I live now in Spokane, Washington that are tricky in a car.  I would never attempt them on a skateboard.  There are a lot of skateboard tricks I would never attempt, but I think the people who do are kind of like superheroes. 

Check out Trent's website for more on Stealing Air, Words in the Dust, and his videos and media!

Postscript: Stephanie Trimberger's Book Signing

A few weeks ago, I posted a request for the good people of the Pacific Northwest to come out and support Stephanie Trimberger at her book signing for The Ruby Heart. Said people responded in force, and you can see Stephanie, her father, Arthur, and footage from the event in this wonderful video here. Have Kleenex at the ready:

"Harry Potter" editors make dream come true

All About THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ME: Behind the Book, Q&A, and Giveaway!

Two and a half years ago, I received a few sample chapters of an unsolicited manuscript that made me laugh out loud from the very first page, so I immediately wrote to the author and asked her to send me the whole thing. It was called The Encyclopedia of Me, and it was the brilliant story of twelve-year-old Tink Aaron-Martin. When Tink gets grounded, she decides to use the time to write an encyclopedia of her life, encompassing her family, with two loving parents and two older brothers, Lex and Seb (the latter of whom is autistic); her hairless cat, Hortense; her fickle best friend, Freddie Blue Anderson; and, as the summer unfolds, a new interest in skateboarding and an equal interest in the blue-haired skateboarding boy next door, Kai (whom the much more assertive Freddie Blue just might like as well). The manuscript at that time alternated portions of the encyclopedia with straight-narrative sections. I loved the format, but what I loved even more was the voice, which was capable of hilarious observations like this one: 
Seb frequently smells as bad as Lex, but different. This is mostly because he staunchly refuses to shower more than three times in a week. If you are ever not sure which twin you are dealing with, breathe deeply. If your senses are kickboxed into an eye-watering stupor by the stinging stench of cheap cologne, it’s Lex. If they curl up and die due to the overwhelmingly hideous moldy pong of sweat, combined with the antiseptic, lemony zing of hand sanitizer, it’s Seb. Easy, see?
But Tink's voice was also capable of great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, in contemplating Freddie Blue's behavior or her favorite tree. All the characters felt as rich and flawed and warm and complicated as many real people I know. Tink is biracial, but it's simply a fact of who she is, not the source of any angst (beyond an inability to get her hair to behave). And Karen fully dramatized some great set-piece scenes, like the one where Freddie Blue, Tink, and Kai try to spend the night in a department store. A terrific voice, wonderful characters, the ability to execute some great scenes, genuine emotion, and that aforementioned laugh-out-loud humor all made me fall in love with the book, and I signed it up as soon as I could.

Over the next year and a half, Karen and I worked together to absorb the narrative sections into the encyclopedia entries and turn the entire book into an encyclopedia, with the plot unfolding alphabetically from A-Z. This involved (nobody who knows me will be shocked to hear) a lot of outlines at first, as Karen cataloged all her plot events and encyclopedia entries and mapped them onto each other; and then a lot of cutting and adding, tweaking and refining right up through the proofreading stages, as we juggled entries, photos, and footnotes in within our allotted 256 pages. But the book remained both intensely emotional and very funny -- a perfect tween-girl smart read, and equally great for fans of YA writers like E. Lockhart or Jaclyn Moriarty. Recently I asked Karen some questions about herself and the book.
First things first:  What would your own encyclopedia entry look like?

Rivers, Karen (June 12, 1970 - forever). (Karen prefers not to die.) Author of many wonderful novels for children, teenagers, and adults. Born in British Columbia, Canada, she went to college for ages and ages and studied a little bit of almost anything, having contemplated at various different times careers in theatre, journalism, law, and medicine. Then she worked at the phone company and some equally scary places before becoming a writer full-time. She has always loved giant sets of encyclopedias because they contain all knowledge! (As well as for their beautiful gold-edged pages, of course.) She has two splendid children who never fight or spill things, and a dog who -- if properly inspired by a squirrel -- can actually climb trees.  (Only one of those statements is not 100% true.) She can usually be found walking slowly up or down the mountain behind her house, thinking things or taking photographs, or -- on a good day -- both. 

Which came first with The Encyclopedia of Me, the story or the format? How did the other one follow?

I think the story came first, or rather, the character. At the time that I started to write this book, I think my kids were just babies. My older son, my stepson, is autistic. And at the time, his autism was really consuming our lives. Most of our waking hours were spent dealing with certain situations, supporting him, or talking about his autism and how we were going to deal in the longer term. One of the things we talked about was what it would be like for siblings to have an older brother for whom different rules applied. That was basically the germ of the idea of the story, simply that it would be the sibling's story and the autism would merely be on the periphery and normalized because that would be all the sibling would ever have known. It was so much in my consciousness, in a way I think it was my way of trying-on-for-size what that might be like.

When I began to write, Tink originally was going to read the entire set of encyclopedias, inspired by A.J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All. As I wrote, it seemed implausible that she would get past the first As (I started reading them again myself and was struggling by the third entry), so she started to make up her own. It evolved from there. I know people roll their eyes when author's say "It wrote itself!"  But in this case, the format decided itself and it was something of an accident. Originally, it was straight narrative with the entries scattered throughout, but then we decided to take a stab at making the whole book fit the format. In addition to working well with the story (I think!), it was also fun and challenging to write. Sometimes it even felt impossible.  

This is going to sound as crazy as the "It wrote itself!" comment, but I will say that it's much more satisfying to write a book that's really really hard to write, from a technical standpoint. It makes me understand, on a completely different level, why people climb Everest for fun. Having successfully done it once, I have all kinds of ideas for other novels structured like specifically formatted books, such as cook books and etiquette books and ... the possibilities are limitless!

What attracts you to encyclopedias?

The idea that a book holds all the answers. Of course, now I'm grown up, I understand that knowledge changes and evolves, and looking at old encyclopedias, you realize they are full of things that we subsequently now know more/differently/better.  But as a child, they were flat-out the answer to everything. I think Wikipedia is similarly attractive now, but it isn't quite the same.  You don't randomly flip through Wikipedia while lying on the hall carpet on an endlessly long summer day, discovering things about Sri Lanka or the endocrine system that you never knew. The magic of random discovery has pretty much been lost with the loss of print encyclopedias, which makes me sad. I'm ashamed to admit that I don't currently HAVE a set of encyclopedias, but I wish that I did.   I'm slightly hoarder-like and collector-inclined, I think I would like to have sets from various different decades, just to play compare-and-contrast with them (I have dictionaries and etiquette books and medical books across decades, which are lots of fun). But I live in the world's smallest house! So that might not work.

What sort of challenges did you face in working the story into an alphabetical, encyclopedic form?

There was a very real risk that the plot was going to be compromised by trying to force it into a mold. Making the story flow was incredibly tricky (as you know!). The last thing we wanted was for anyone to read the book and be conscious of the manipulation of the plot to fit the alphabet, so we made a real effort to simply tell the story as a straight narrative that incidentally was displayed in alphabetical order. 

Describe your favorite writing space and time.

I love to write during the day because it's a novelty. For the last seven years, most of my writing has been done at night on a laptop in bed (for warmth), after the kids are asleep. I've seen more of 3 a.m. than I'd like to have seen! Now my kids are in school full time and I can sit (!) at the dining room table and write while actually properly awake. It remains to be seen if this improves the quality of my work.   
What novels were the biggest influence on you when you were a young reader? And what encyclopedia did you grow up using?

I read so voraciously as a child and a young adult that isolating books now to say they were more or less influential than any others feels like I'd be contriving an answer to fit what I feel an author should say, as opposed to the truth. The truth was I read everything, absolutely everything that I had access to, in massive volumes. We did not watch TV (or at least the TV we had had a blown picture tube, so we could only watch about 30 minutes a day before the tube gave up, and it involved using pliers and getting electrical shocks to turn it on). We read. I read between seven and ten books per week for most of my childhood/teen years.    

When I say we read everything, I really mean it. My mum was briefly in a Danielle Steele phase, and I read those as eagerly as I read Little Women or A Wrinkle in Time or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Or Flowers in the Attic, for that matter.  My dad read mostly books about war and tall ships, so I have this absurdly detailed understanding of tall ships based on reading the Horatio Hornblower series repeatedly. There was never really a distinction made between "adult" books and "kid" books in my family; nor was there any fuss made about genre fiction vs. literary fiction. They belonged to Book Of The Month club, which I don't think exists anymore, but involved getting condensed versions of popular books in a bound volume every month. We loved those. It's impossible not to be influenced by everything you read; whether it's good or bad, there is something you can take away from it. I suppose it's only a matter of time before I write a tear-jerking romance that is set on a brigantine.  

As an adult looking back, I'd say if I wanted to be inspired by anyone's career, I'd pick Judy Blume.  She really perfected the whole "You are going to be OK" genre of realist YA.  Madeleine L'Engle I think redefined the parameters of middle-grade fiction, blurring lines of fantasy and reality, and I love her for that. I love everyone who tried something new or different and just really went for it, both back then and now. 
You’ve written a number of novels about this preteen/early teen stage of life, and especially the family/friends/young romance conflicts that I think are the bread-and-butter of older middle-grade. What attracts you to writing about this time period? Was it a significant time in your own life?

I learned a while ago (after I was already writing YA) that a person's frontal lobe doesn't fully develop until they are in their early twenties. I'm paraphrasing (and possibly mis-remembering), so don't quote me on this, but I believe the gist of it was that until the frontal lobe finishes developing, people are actually biologically unable to view the world in a not-entirely-egocentric way. The idea that people (and characters) are limited by this brain development to seeing the world in this utterly up-close way at all times is fascinating to me. It explains why I can remember with 100% clarity, things that happened to me, who I had a crush on, what I wore, and how I felt when I was young, but I have only vague recall of what I said or did or wore in the intervening decades. The intensity of that stage of life is what draws me to it again and again. The first time you feel something, it's so powerful. Kids are figuring out who they are, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, except more like a Choose-Your-Own-Character. The possibilities are endless, which makes teen and pre-teen characters so much fun (and so endlessly interesting) to write.

As a teen/pre-teen, I never felt quite comfortable in my own skin.  Now, when I talk to the kids who I perceived as problem-free and popular and perfect, I find out that they struggled with similar feelings. Who knew? It seems as though everyone always feels like they are slightly on the outside, looking in. In a way, I want to send a missive to my younger self that effectively says, "Look!  Everyone else feels the same way! You are going to be OK!" Except maybe now I can send the bulletin to my readers:  You ARE going to be OK. I promise.

Giveaway! Even though the hardcover is now in stores, I have a few ARCs of this still lurking around my office, and I'd be delighted to see them go to good homes. Your challenge:  Write a brief encyclopedia entry either for yourself or for the main character of your work-in-progress, and post it either in the comments below or on your own blog/journal/Facebook. (If you do it on your own website, please leave a link here.) I'll decide a winner by the 15th. Thanks!

Narrative Breakdowns, Muggles Editing, Getting a Job, Overseas Travel, and Lovely Links

About a year and a half ago ago, my fiance, James Monohan, who is a video editor and director, decided that he wanted to start a podcast to talk about story questions, and thus The Narrative Breakdown was born. (I cannot even type those words without hearing "Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh The Narrative Breakdown" in James's voice, as that is a rough approximation of our theme song, which both cracks me up and makes me do a little groove. It is well worth the listen.) We only recorded three trial episodes last year before our schedules got in the way, but we are back this week with a discussion of Beginnings & Inciting Incidents, pivoting off my blog post on the subject last Saturday. James goes on to chat in Part II with our friend Jack Tomas, screenwriter and proud ubernerd, who discusses the concept of Inciting Incidents as it applies to many of pop culture's biggest properties and this summer's hit movies. We hope to be doing these much more regularly going forward. Do please check the podcast out, subscribe on iTunes, give us a rating if you like it, and enjoy!

And that is not the only podcast I'm on this week! Keith Hawk and John Granger of Mugglecast Academia kindly had me on their show to talk about being an editor, particularly my role as the continuity editor on Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. It was a fun conversation that includes some reflections on the HP series and some advice on getting a job in publishing (which I also know I still need to write about here).

Did I ever mention this blog post on the CBC Diversity website about how I got into publishing? It's probably the best account of my own story I've ever written up -- though I just noticed I did exclude the detail that Arthur thought I was a pothead during our interview, thanks to my red eyes (I was wearing my contacts). He was very kind to have faith in me and let me write reader's reports anyway.

For those of you who wonder why editors don't take unsolicited submissions:  As of 8 a.m. this morning, four days after my query-open period began, I have 238 new queries in my inbox. Clearly this is a more concentrated dose than usual or than would happen if I were open all the time. But goodness. If you did not receive a confirmation e-mail (and ONLY if you did not receive a confirmation e-mail, as apparently most people did within 24 hours), you may resend your submission, using the exact same subject line as on your original submission, to CBKedit at gmail dot com, and then e-mail me separately at chavela_que at yahoo dot com with just your name and title. I will reply next week via Yahoo and confirm that those manuscripts got through.

(I have to admit, I am getting VERY testy with people who are not obeying the query instructions -- sending manuscripts to my other addresses, putting elements out of order. They are the world's most straightforward submissions directions, and they are not hard, so it does not make a great first impression if you're not paying attention and obeying them. And if you HAVE messed them up, don't send the ms. again to make up for it. Just go forth and sin no more.)

If you would like a guaranteed way to be able to submit to me in future, I am very happy to announce I'll be at SCBWI Hawaii on February 22 and 23, 2013! I'll be offering both my Plot Master Class to a small group on the Friday and participating in the general conference on the Saturday (with Lin Oliver, who's always fabulous). While a full schedule/registration will be online in November, anyone who's interested now can e-mail the RA, Lynne Wikoff, at lwikoff at lava dot net to get instructions for the Master Class and get on a mailing list for future info.

In other travel news, I'm going to be in Singapore for five days and Thailand for eight later this fall -- my first-ever trip across the Pacific, and I am very excited. If you have recommendations for things to do or see or ways to avoid jet lag, they'd be much appreciated.

Loose links:

Creating a Cover: Three Alternate Takes on SECOND SIGHT + Some Thoughts

At the National SCBWI Conference in January, I was approached by an artist named Heidi Woodward Sheffield, whom I'd met once before at a conference in Michigan. She told me she loved Second Sight -- so much so that she'd designed some alternate cover concepts for it, which might better represent what she considered its complexities. After she sent them to me, I was fascinated by these alternate visions of how my book could have looked, and asked if I could share them here. Heidi replied:
If you could note how incredibly rough they are, especially the collage piece with the baby, locket and quotes from your book (too busy), and your name (illegible...). Please stress it was a concept piece and not a final. Photoshop has a sneaky way of looking too finished for conceptual work.
Here they are -- and aren't they beautiful?


Looking at these alternate visions led me to reflect a little on why I went with the book cover I did, and the principles that drive my editorial decisions on a cover. Most of all, I want the covers of my books to convey, in both their text and images, a clear, straightforward message about what each book is, and for that to be an emotional message that will appeal to the book's most likely buyers. Thus I wanted to have books on the cover of Second Sight so you know immediately that this is a book about books, and then the large subtitle says clearly who this book is for (writers for children and YA) and why it is different (by an editor) -- all within a colorful, highly structured design whose feeling echoes my own rather structured writing style. If you're working on designs for your own book cover, you could do worse than to fill out the following questionnaire before you start:
  • Who is my most likely audience of buyers? Of readers?
  • What are the successful "comparison titles" for this book, which we might want to subtly remind that likely audience of? (I admit this question is how book cover trends get started.) 
  • What emotions are evoked in or by the book? In novels:  What are the most high-drama scenes or resonant images that might make a great cover?
  • Which of those emotions would I most like to convey to my likely audience? Which one would have the most appeal to them? 
  • How can I build an image or design that will put forward that feeling?
  • How much of the appeal can be carried by the title, and how much has to be taken up by the visuals? How will the two play together?
  • Where will this primarily be sold? (If online, it's important to think about how the image will look scaled down to an inch onscreen.)
Thank you again, Heidi, for letting me share these!

The Scholastic Fall 2012 Librarian Preview + Giveaway

Now live and in your computer! It's your chance to see me and many of my Scholastic colleagues talking about the books we're publishing and love. Here's the whole thing, just under an hour long:

Or you can go to the preview page to view the preview by age range or formats. My books are, in the middle-grade section:
  • Stealing Air by Trent Reedy (with a special appearance by Trent himself!)
  • The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers (a book that came to me as a SQUID!)
  • The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda (presented jointly with Arthur, who represents Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung)
And in YA, Amber House, by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed, a very smart mother-and-daughter team.

I'll give away two galleys of each of them, to eight commenters chosen at random. Your task, commenters: Tell my fiance & me where we should go on vacation this summer. We can't decide.

Q&A: Erin Saldin, author of THE GIRLS OF NO RETURN

I'll let my Goodreads review of this book start me off here:
The usual caveat:  I edited this, I'm biased, la la la.
Actually, I'm more biased than even usual here, because Erin was in the only creative writing class I ever took, our senior year at Carleton College. While I produced odd metafictions based on my personal theories about reading and writing, leavened with pre-graduation depression, she wrote infinitely better stories about believable teenage girls, always with terrifically jagged, smart, sad, sardonic voices. Even in college, she was in control of her ideas and the effects she wanted to achieve, and the edges of that voice cut.

So when I became an associate editor in 2003 and was first feeling my power (ahem), I sent her a letter suggesting that she write a YA novel. And she did -- after finishing an MFA, publishing several short stories, and having agents fight for the right to represent her. The book she produced is worth that fight, and my years-long wait for it. She still has that jagged, smart, sad voice, but it's now applied to a story and a place that are rare in YA fiction, focused on the relationships among a trio of teenage girls at a wilderness boarding school in Idaho:   strong Boone, glamorous Gia, and Lida, who is torn between the poles they represent. This book *gets* female friendships/crushes/enemyships and their complexities, and as each of the girls has secrets that can be used as weapons, the book builds constantly in tension as we wait for those knives to come out and be used. At some point, I want to talk about the ending publicly with Erin, because it grew out of her own reactions as a teenage reader to YA fiction and is fascinating in light of those; but I can't do that until more people have read it and might join in the discussion . . .

So please do! And you don't have to take just my word for its quality:  It has two starred reviews now, one from Booklist, which said "this psychological mind-bender is raw, gripping, and deftly rolled out by a writer-to-watch," and another from Kirkus, which called it "a smashing debut."
And because this is my blog, by golly, here's my chance to talk about that ending publicly! And ask Erin a few other questions along the way:

1. You grew up in Idaho, and you obviously love the wilderness there. What was your most memorable trip in the Rockies? Have you had any notable wildlife encounters like Lida does in the book?

I do love the Rockies! This is going to be extremely sappy, but my favorite backpacking trip was just a year and a half ago. My husband and I got married on a lake in Montana, and we left the next day on foot for a backpacking trip in the mountains. The lake where we were married butts up against the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which is this HUGE, grizzly-infested wilderness. We’d packed our hiking boots and gear when we were packing for the wedding, and our friends tied tin cans to our backpacks to send us off. It was gorgeous, and a great way to start the marriage. But, we didn’t see any bears.

I did have one wildlife encounter, however, that was VERY similar to the one Lida has in the book. I was living in the woods in Oregon for about 6 months, doing a wilderness writing residency as I finished up some revisions on the novel. There was nothing at this cabin: no people, no electricity, and only solar panels for hot water. It was a two-hour drive from civilization. I was sitting on the rocking chair on the cabin’s porch one afternoon as my dog, who was with me, “hunted” lizards (i.e., stood in a corner of the porch with his back to the world, staring at the corner of the floorboards where he’d once seen a lizard appear). I don’t know what made me look up (let’s call it my primal instinct), but I glanced up and looked straight at a full-grown mountain lion that was walking down the dirt road toward the house. It was about fifty feet away from me. And I know they say that mountain lions always see you first, but this one did not appear to notice me at all. Until I stood up and waved at it, that is. It really was like a silent film. The lion turned and ran away. I sat back down. My dog continued to stare at the floorboards.

2. You spent two years in the Peace Corps—how did that experience inform your writing?

I think that the time I spent in Togo, West Africa was crucial to my writing. For one thing, trite as this might sound, it provided me with a sense of the world as much larger and complicated than I’d imagined possible. I also learned that there are different ways of communicating. The official language in Togo is French, though there are over 60 dialects spoken throughout the country. So, I was an English-speaker, trying to explain myself in French, and my friends in the rural village where I lived spoke Kabye, but had to try to respond to me in their second language, too. The result was that we all had to distill our reactions to things. There was a lot of: “I’m happy.” “I’m sad.” “I don’t understand.” “You are funny.” “I like babies.” That kind of thing. Facial expressions were important. In some ways, this made for more genuine and heartfelt friendships. It just wasn’t possible to talk around a problem—I learned how to be direct. So, while my characters don’t often say things like, “I’m happy. I like babies,” I do feel like I have a better sense of their essential emotions.

3. As a writer, what did you get out of doing your MFA program? What do you get out of teaching?

I think that the greatest gift of an MFA program is the fact that it gives you two years in which you basically just have to write. I was lucky, because I also had amazing professors at the University of Virginia, and some of my fellow graduate students are still the people I send my work to first, before I submit it anywhere. Graduate school also provides you with deadlines, which I think are necessary for writers. Otherwise, we might spend the rest of our lives playing around with one sentence.

Teaching has been wonderful, because the students are just so excited about reading and writing and talking about literature, and I think that enthusiasm is infective.

4. The Girls of No Return is unusual in contemporary YA fiction in that it focuses so strongly on the friendship and enemyships of three young women, with a guy only peripherally involved. Was this a conscious choice on your part -- to focus on the girls' bonds -- or did it just happen as you were writing?

Well, because this novel began as a short story that I wrote in graduate school, I already knew what the setting would be (an all-girls’ school in the wilderness). I also knew what the novel would explore: the difficulty of friendship, as well as the way that—especially when we’re younger—all of the lines that we think will be so clear, such as those between friendship and desire, jealousy and affirmation, or love and hate, can blur so easily. I didn’t think those themes would come out as easily if there were lots of guys kind of flitting about. I also didn’t think that the addition of a bunch of male characters would change Lida’s journey at all. She’s at an in-between stage in her life, in terms of her knowledge of herself as both an emotional and sexual person, and the girls’ school seemed like the right place for her to begin coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.

5. Which of the characters changed the most -- in your head or on the page or both -- in the writing of the book?

Hmmmm. That’s a good question! I can tell you who didn’t change: Boone. She was definitely the clearest character to write, because she was always essentially herself. Gia did change a bit, though she, too, was always a very clear character in my mind. The trick, I think, was to make her a little less clear. I guess I would say that Lida changed the most as I was writing the book. At one point, I remember you asked me to think about where Lida is at the end of all of it—after everything has happened—and to then think about how she gets there. That was hard, but a good exercise.

4. How did you arrive at the unusual Epilogue structure?

Funny you should ask that! The Epilogues were the way that I conceived of responding to your question about where Lida is at the “end,” and how to show the journey she’s taken between the time she spends at the school and the “present.“ Because the novel is in the first-person point of view, it always felt like it was very much Lida’s story to tell, but when I was revising the novel, I wanted to make it even more immediately hers. By placing Lida at the desk with the pen in hand, I allowed her to tell the story in what I felt was a realistic way, while still allowing the reader to see her now, and to get a sense of how she’s changed since her time at the school. I used Epilogues throughout the book because she literally is writing them at the end, with a perspective and knowledge that the Lida in the “regular” chapters doesn’t yet have.

6. The conclusion of the story is truly unexpected. Why did you choose to write it that way? (Spoiler alert, somewhat, so highlight the lines below to read.)

Well, I guess this, too, ties in with the idea of the Epilogues. When I started writing the novel, knowing I wanted it to be for Young Adults, I knew one thing I didn’t want to do: I did not want, under any circumstances, to tie up the ending neatly with a bow. I do really love YA literature, but the novels I’ve liked the most are the ones that resist the tendency to clear everything up at the end. That’s not how it works in life, and it’s especially not how it works in high school. I was especially interested in exploring the idea that we make wrong decisions, that we sometimes give our hearts to the wrong people, that sometimes, in fact, we don’t learn from our mistakes at the opportune time, and we end up having to work damn hard to make things right. I’ll admit: it’s not the most light-hearted approach. But it seemed like there was something missing from a lot of the books I was reading at the time [as a teenager], and that thing was consequence. Not consequence like, I accidentally broke my mother’s favorite bracelet and now I have to come clean about it!, but consequence like, here is something I’ve done that I’ll live with forever, and I have to keep talking about it in order to understand why I did it.

7. What is your daily writing routine like? Your process?

I write every morning. I wake up, make coffee, take my dog on a walk, and write until 11 or 12. When the writing is going well, I turn off my internet connection and just enjoy it. When the writing is more difficult, it’s a challenge not to constantly check Facebook or my email account. At this point, though, I know that, once I’ve logged onto Facebook, my writing day is basically over. 

In terms of my process, I’d say that every writing project is different. Generally, though, I start by writing short scenes in my notebook. I have a stack of spiral-bound artist’s notebooks—unlined—and I usually begin by writing random things in the notebook before transferring them to the computer. Once I start working on the computer, I try to find connections between the things I’ve written, and that’s when the story begins to really take shape.

More about The Girls of No Return:

Behind the Book: IRISES by Francisco X. Stork

Earlier this year, the ARCs of Francisco Stork's latest novel, Irises, went out with the letter below. It's about the best introduction I can give the book, I think, so I decided I'd just reproduce it here. . . . Irises is in stores starting January 2012 (and there have already been sightings in the wild), and Francisco will be at ALA in Dallas later this month. Thank you for reading it, if you do.

Dear Friend,

As Francisco X. Stork’s editor, I often face a unique challenge:  how to summarize the stories of his extraordinary novels without making them sound totally cheesy. “A young man with Asperger’s syndrome investigates the meaning of suffering”? It seems unlikely, but that was Marcelo in the Real World, which became one of the most acclaimed YA novels of the past few years. “A cancer patient and a boy planning a murder become friends”? Oh, please—but The Last Summer of the Death Warriors just won ALAN’s Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. In both cases, the marvelous reality and honesty of Francisco’s characters, his fine, spare writing, and his bravery in probing these profound spiritual topics resulted in novels that were so much more than the summaries of their plots, and were embraced by critics and readers alike.

And now you’re holding Irises, in which—deep breath—“Two very different sisters must deal with the death of their father and the life of their mother, who is in a permanent vegetative state.” “But wait!” I want to grab you and say, because again it’s about so much more than that: Kate has ambition and dreams and drive, but how does she weigh the needs of her deepest self against her responsibility to her family? Mary is an artist because she can’t be anything else, but what can she do when she’s lost her own light? Both girls wrestle with the weight of love, for each other, for their mother, and for the three very (very) different young men in their lives. And while none of this is easy, Kate and Mary are so real, our sympathy for them so deep, that this ultimately becomes a book about connection more than division, and about finding new depths of love, vision, and sacrifice.

I believe that Irises will speak not just to Francisco’s many fans in the YA community, but to lovers of books like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold:  novels about young women facing life-and-death decisions, for people they love and for themselves. And in these fast-paced times, I truly appreciate you picking up a book that goes beyond easy summary to the very heart of our human dilemmas . . . which sounds cheesy, I know, but what can I do? It’s Francisco X. Stork, and it’s wonderful.

Thank you again for reading Irises, and for sharing it with your fellow readers.

With all best wishes,

Cheryl Klein
Senior Editor

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part III

Again: If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

3. Recognize the Power of a Damn Good Outline. 

As anyone who’s read Second Sight knows, I love a good outline (or a bookmap, as I call them there), and as pretty much all of my authors know, I am sort of insane about using them. That’s because an outline allows you both to see the action of an entire book laid out in just a few pages, and to break down how that action and the characters involved are developing scene by scene . . . what's changing, what’s not feeling necessary, what maybe should be added, how I as a reader am reacting to the characters and events as we go along. Sometimes I will ask authors to outline their book at the same time I’m doing it, and it’s always fascinating to compare what I as a reader am taking away from each chapter versus what they see in it.

Anyway, because the narrative structure of Liar’s Moon was so complex, I ended up outlining it in four different ways at various stages in the process, and I thought it might interest you all to see those various drafts. In the first one, my Basic Bookmap, I outlined the events in detail in the order in which they unfolded in the plot, in which Chapter 2 was described like this:
Ch. 2/11 – Durrel helps her clean up. He’s there because they think he murdered his wife Talth Ceid by a poison called Tincture of the Moon. Only people against him = Talth’s family. Account of murder night on p. 17. Raffin Taradyce has joined the Acolyte Guard. Someone has bailed Digger out, and she leaves. Durrel asks her to take a message to his father.
(The “11” was the page number on which the chapter started.) That helped me wrap my head around the basic events of the book, and I made notes in bullet points underneath or sometimes within those descriptions. The first draft of this outline is just for me, but later, after I’ve processed all my reactions to the book and determined what’s most necessary and helpful for an author to hear from me at this stage, I’ll often edit both the chapter descriptions and the notes and send this outline to the author as part of an editorial letter.

Once I had the whole book in my head this way, I broke this down into my second outline, a Mini-Map with just the key events of this chapter, to wit:
2 – meets Durrel, learns about murder of Talth
 A Mini-Map is useful for quick reference—answering questions like “Okay, now when did she find that dead body again?”—especially in long or plot-dense novels like this one.

The third version, the Plot Points Map: I went through and identified where each of the many mystery plots started, labeling it in bullet points and all caps under each chapter. Then I added any LIES told in the chapter, or any TRUTHS UNCOVERED, to help keep track of what Digger knew was true when; and polished it off with a SETS UP, so I knew what the reader was expecting to happen based on the action of this chapter, and I could be sure that the later action of the book followed up on that and paid it off. (I also sometimes added TO ADD if there was information we needed earlier, TO MOVE if something was going elsewhere, or TO CUT if something wasn’t feeling necessary.) That changed the look of this Chapter 2 outline to this:
2 – meets Durrel, learns about murder of Talth
    •    MYSTERY: Who killed Talth Ceid?
    •    LIES:  Durrel says that he doesn’t know how the poison got into his room
    •    SETS UP:  expectation that Digger will go by Charicaux and talk to Ragn
    •    UNDERSTOOD THREAT & MOTIVATION:  The Ceid are out for Durrel’s blood in revenge for Talth’s death.
Finally, because this is a mystery novel, and mysteries move forward in part by digging backward, I created a chronological list of events that started a couple of years before the action of this book began—before the murder was even committed, in fact. This “Backwards Outline” chronicled all of the complex series of events leading up to the murder, and also narrated the events of the night of the murder itself. That way we could be sure that the backstory structure was sound by seeing that all of its events were there; and once that backstory structure was in place, and events arrived at the point at which the action of the book actually began, we could concentrate on when to reveal those backstory events in the frontstory for maximum effect. While revealing any of that backstory would be spoiling you for the reveals in the book itself, here’s where the action picks up with the book’s beginning:

TWO MONTHS LATER (when the book begins)
    31.    (Ch. 1) Digger, pickpocketing, is roughed up and arrested by the King’s guards.
    32.    Taken to the King’s Keep, she is thrown into Durrel’s cell and (2) they talk about the murder.
             a.    MYSTERY:  Who killed Talth Ceid?
    33.    Digger’s friend Rat bails her out (courtesy of a note attached to 50 crowns) and she leaves the Keep.
             a.    MYSTERY:  Who sent the note to bail Digger out? And if this was arranged on Durrel’s behalf, who got her sent there in the first place?
    34.    (3) Digger asks Rat to track the paper of the note. (4) She decides she will investigate the murder.
             a.    Digger’s belief:  Durrel is innocent; no idea about other suspects.
    35.    Digger goes to Bal Marse and finds it abandoned and empty, but with traces of magic about.
             a.    MYSTERY:  How is Talth tied to magic?
Here, you can see, I started numbering the events so that it was easy to refer to them later—for instance, later in the outline, after Talth’s murderer was revealed, I noted in the outline that that SOLVED MYSTERY 32a. Such a strategy helped me keep track of all the plot threads flying in the wind and making sure there weren’t any loose ends we didn’t intend to leave dangling. (Some we intended.) And when Elizabeth and I were having editorial conversations about the book, it was very easy to say, “Okay, so let’s move events 45-49 to Chapter 8 so that we don’t reveal that information too early in the process.” If I can speak as a proud editor for a moment, the fact that I could make a Backwards Outline for this book is precisely what makes Elizabeth such a great writer: how densely and completely she’s imagined and written the world she’s created, and how well she brings it to life. 

Lesson for Writers:  I am completely agnostic on whether writers should outline their books before they do a first draft: That’s up to the writer and their working style and their relationships with their stories and characters. But once that first draft is done, do consider making an outline like one of the ones above, tailored to your own manuscript’s needs, to help you see the book afresh in both its component pieces and as a whole.

And did all this work on Liar’s Moon pay off? Well, check out these reviews:
  • Leila Roy at Bookshelves of Doom and Kirkus Reviews: "The first time through, you’ll concentrate on figuring out the world and meeting the characters and following the story. But when you read them again, you’ll notice how multilayered they are. You’ll notice hints and subtleties of character and plot, and you’ll notice just how carefully they are crafted. You’ll notice that the characters are fully realized people—so much so that it’s easy to forget that they’re fictional creations, even if they do live in a world with three moons."
  • Publishers’ Weekly Children’s Bookshelf Galley Pick of the Week: "It's a very versatile story—perfect for a display of mysteries, fantasy, adventure, or novels with powerful heroines. Liar’s Moon will definitely be one of my very favorite handsells for the fall and holiday seasons, particularly for my fans of Patricia Wrede, Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner."
  • VOYA: “As with StarCrossed, Bunce excels in weaving together several plot points and characters without weighing down the novel. Fan of [Kristin] Cashore’s Graceling will greatly enjoy Digger’s unique voice and strength of character, along with Bunce’s ability to fully immerse readers in a finely crafted world.  This book, along with its prequel, should be on most library shelves as both have a wide appeal….”

The Giveaway Runs Through Midnight Wednesday!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which continues through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of my Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:
Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part II

Again: If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

2. The More Readers Find to Be Interested in a __________, the More They Care, and the More They’ll Read

The blank above could be filled with “Plot,” “Character,” or ultimately “Book”—but here I’m going to talk about character, because really what I want to discuss is stakes, and the best stakes an author can create is the reader’s interest in the characters. If readers want to hang out with your protagonist, because he or she says or does interesting things, then they’ll just generally go along with stuff for a while, I think, even if they’re a little puzzled or nothing seems to be happening. More importantly long-term, readers will experience all the action that happens to your protagonist the same way the protagonist experiences it, as well as the joy, the fear, and the pain that goes along with it—and as the creation of emotion is the highest goal of an artist, having your reader be interested in your characters is a significant first step.

Liar’s Moon had an advantage here in that it was a (standalone) sequel to StarCrossed, so a fair amount of our readership would be coming to us from the previous book, and they’d already be interested in Digger, the sneak-thief who pretended to be an escaped nun, got caught up in a rebellion, and then fomented religious civil war.* But when you have an Act I like that in StarCrossed, you need a pretty spectacular Act II; and that means making readers care not just about Digger, but the people around her and the action she’s pursuing.

In this book, as established on Wednesday, that action is a mystery—a murder investigation. Readers get invested in mysteries because they care about (A) the abstract idea the mystery represents (in this case, justice), (B) the victim of the mystery, if there is one, (C) other people affected by the crime, or (D) what’s in it for the detective . . . though really I don’t think readers ever really care about (A) until it’s played out in (B) or (C). With (B), the murder victim here is Talth Ceid, Durrel’s much older wife, who wed him in what was acknowledged by everyone involved to be a marriage of convenience, uniting her wealth with his noble name. Digger never met her personally, so everything we know about her we get from the people Digger talks to -- and Talth’s pretty quickly established as a woman whom no one liked, including Durrel.

That leads us on to (C). In Liar’s Moon’s case, the primary “other person affected by the crime” was Durrel, who was being framed for Talth’s murder. So we had to make readers care about Durrel -- a guy whom Digger had met briefly, and liked, at the beginning of StarCrossed, but who was then absent for four-fifths of the book.** Since the mystery of Talth's murder structures all of this book, and the mystery is driven by Digger’s connection to and interest in Durrel, we had to get Digger to like him again and feel pretty invested in him tout suite once the story started. Fortunately, they're very quickly thrown into contact (literally), as Digger gets picked up on the street (also literally) and tossed into Durrel's jail cell for unknown reasons.

I have a list on my bulletin board at work of fourteen qualities that make characters attractive to readers (or at least to me, I suppose). As I reread Digger’s first encounter with him now, Durrel quickly fulfills #9, Kindness, in the way that he immediately is concerned about Digger when she appears in his cell:
     “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”
     “I don’t know,” Durrel said. “This is very odd. You’re injured.” I touched my face, which was streaked with blood from the cut under my eye. “Let’s get you cleaned up, at least.”
#11, Humor/Wit, in that he has a sense of (black) humor about his situation:
“They think I murdered my wife.” . . . Durrel saw the expression on my face and gave an attempt at a wan smile. “It surprised me too.”
And most especially #8, Jeopardy, because all the circumstantial evidence points to him:
“Isn’t it always the husband?” A twisted smile tried to form itself on his lips, but died prematurely. “They found vials of the Tincture in my rooms. But it wasn’t mine—” He turned back into the shadows. “They’re going to execute me, Celyn.”
As their conversation goes along, it warms up, as Digger rediscovers her appreciation of his company:  “Something about Lord Durrel made him too easy to talk to.” He becomes more optimistic about his situation in talking to her as well (#10, Positivity):
    “We’re left with a puzzle,” Durrel said, and there was a lively spark to his voice that seemed all out of place.
    “Pox,” I said. “I hate puzzles.”
And thus Digger discovers her own (D) above, what’s in it for her to investigate this case—both a personal mystery, in finding out who would have arranged for her to be thrown in with Durrel, which is surely not a coincidence; and a personal desire, that she likes Durrel (and maybe even starts to "like­-like" him), and doesn’t want to see him executed. Thus, by the end of Chapter 2, the plot is set; Digger and we readers care, so the stakes are set too; and the book is well on its way.

Lesson for Writers:  Cheryl’s Fourteen Qualities of Attractive Characters***:
  1. Newness (someone I haven’t seen before)
  2. Viewpoint (the POV character)
  3. Desire (the character wants something)
  4. Expertise
  5. Friends (the character likes or is liked by people the reader likes))
  6. Enemies (the character is disliked by people the reader dislikes, so we like the character -- Harry Potter being hated by the Dursleys is the classic example)
  7. Action (the character does something)
  8. Jeopardy (being in it)
  9. Kindness
  10. Positivity (a good attitude in general)
  11. Humor/Wit
  12. Enthusiasm (passion for one specific thing)
  13. Complication (meaning that while they have at least one likeable element, as per #9-12 generally, they do experience darker & deeper emotions)
  14. Mystery (the character is keeping secrets, even from the reader)
This is by no means an exhaustive list -- I actually added two more qualities today in talking about it with Elizabeth -- and it's mostly a first-impressions list, too, as the qualities I find attractive in a character at the beginning of the book are different from the ones I expect to have developed by the middle, somewhat. But as a rule of thumb, the more of these qualities your characters demonstrate, the more readers will be inclined to be interested in them, and the more they’ll be invested in the action of your book as well. And if someone tells you they don't like your protagonist (and you want them to), or they find him boring or bland, see if you can develop some of these qualities in her, or place her in circumstances that create these qualities, and go from there.

On Monday, Part III:  Outlines, outlines, outlines!
* Yes, Digger is that awesome. And hey, don’t you want to read StarCrossed? It’s $2.99 on e-book right now…
** Since we knew Durrel would play a major role in this book, we were at pains to keep him present in the reader’s mind throughout StarCrossed, which Elizabeth accomplished by having him give Digger a present she used throughout that book.
*** I will be talking about these qualities in more depth at the Florida SCBWI conference over Martin Luther King Day weekend, if you’re looking for a January break.


The Giveaway Is Still Going On!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which runs through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of my Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:

Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part I

If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

1. Know What Sort of Story You're Writing.

This was Elizabeth’s and my third book together, after the Morris Award-winning A Curse Dark as Gold and the acclaimed StarCrossed. It was also her third mystery novel. But we had a significant advantage in approaching Liar’s Moon editorially: We knew it was a mystery novel from the beginning!

You see, if either one of us had had to describe Curse or StarCrossed early on, we would have called them historical fantasy. They had magic, they were each rooted in a sense of a specific time period and place (though both exist in fantasy versions of that place), and most of the historical details were accurate to that time and place. But in the course of working on both books, we realized that while the clothing on these books was most definitely historical fantasy, the skeletons beneath them were Mystery plots -- where our heroine needed to uncover a piece of information -- twined with Conflict plots, as forces or people worked to keep that information from her.

And this changed our approach to both books, because mysteries require so much advance setup: the creation of a coherent backstory that established the thing that’s a mystery to our heroine; the laying-in of the clues; scenes dramatizing the discovery of those clues; red herrings, and the demolition of those herrings; the creation of obstacles both passive (a giant castle to be searched, say) and active (a relative who wants to keep the information hidden); a climax dramatizing the revelation of the answer . . . all paced properly and carefully interwoven with the other plotlines. And as a result, we had to go back and invent new scenes, hide new clues, even add or delete other plot threads to give those central structuring Mysteries their proper weight. This is all part of the novelist’s job, of course, and Elizabeth pulled it off beautifully in both books. But we definitely experienced small but significant moments of brain-shift when we said: “Oh yes: Mysteries”

Liar’s Moon was by far the easiest editorial process of the three books so far, partly because we always knew it was a mystery novel: Digger’s friend Durrel Decath has been imprisoned for murdering his wife Talth, so Digger sets out to prove his innocence, which also involves proving someone else’s guilt. These questions spring up straightaway:
  • When and how did Talth die?
  • If that method of death requires skill or particular equipment (in Liar’s Moon’s case, it’s a rare poison called Tincture of the Moon), who has access to that skill or equipment?
  • Who did she interact with before she died?
  • When and by whom was she found?
  • Who might want Talth dead?
  • Why would they want Talth dead?
  • Who could attest to her relationships with these people? 
  • What was Durrel's relationship with Talth in particular?
  • Is he an innocent bystander, or is he being framed? If the latter, why?
  • Is anyone hiding anything? (Answer in this book’s case: Oh hells yes.)
So by the end of Chapter 2, Digger has about thirty things to do for her investigation, and the game’s afoot, and the action in the novel is flying forward. And that is why mysteries are so useful in novels, and worth all the complications involved in setting them up:  because the payoff in terms of intriguing the reader and making things happen is so huge and immediate.

Lesson for Writers: Once you have the story of the book down, figure out what the underlying skeleton of your plot is, and rethink your book accordingly. An easy way to determine the nature of that skeleton is to look at the climax. . . . To immodestly quote a formula from Second Sight:
  • If your story’s climax involves a big fight and someone wins and someone loses, that’s a Conflict.
  • If it involves a piece of information being revealed, that’s a Mystery.
  • And if two characters get together, or the character can achieve something they haven’t been able to before—that’s probably a Lack plot.
On Friday, Part II in this series: How to make a murder matter.

And now: GIVEAWAY!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which runs through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:
Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

CLEOPATRA'S MOON Chat Transcript

Earlier today, my author Vicky Alvear Shecter and I chatted about her novel Cleopatra's Moon on Twitter -- a fun conversation that covered how the book came to me (indirectly via SQUIDs!), the vetting process, my acquisitions interests right now, our ancient Roman names, and sundry other topics. You can read a transcript of the conversation after the jump.
We ran into one peril that I mention as a cautionary tale for future Twitter-chatterers:  I had failed to verify that #CMchat would be a unique hashtag for us, and as a result, we were repeatedly interrupted by country music fans, several of whom expressed their annoyance that we were horning in on their chat. (And to be fair, they did have the hashtag first.) I've deleted their tweets (and RTs of relevant tweets) from the conversation below. 

(I wonder, has anyone yet written a country music song about Twitter? The song titles for this chat could be "Cleopatra, Come Back to Me"; "Let's Retweet, Not Retreat"; and "You Stole My Hashtag -- and My Heart.")

Click to read the whole conversation.

@chavelaque: .@valvearshecter & I will be chatting about CLEOPATRA'S MOON, the acquisitions process, etc. in 5 min! Follow us at #CMchat for the moment.
November 14, 2011, 5:27 pm 

@valvearshecter: I'm there another #CMchat? What's theirs?n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:29 pm 
@chavelaque: Well, theirs is a Country Music chat. Want to change to #CLEOchat for clarity? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:29 pm 

@chavelaque: Anyone who doesn't want to be part of the conversation may want to unfollow me for the next hour. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:30 pm 

@chavelaque: @valvearshecter Well, we're here, so let's do this now. Country music fans, you can all blame me. Or you can read CLEOPATRA'S MOON! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:31 pm 

@valvearshecter: I suggest the latter! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:32 pm 
@dulemba: Read it - love it! :) e #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:32 pm 
@valvearshecter: Thanks, e! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@dulemba: I'm also listening to the audio in my car. Don't need air conditioning - it gives me chills!! :) #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@chavelaque: So just to get started here: I'm Cheryl Klein, & I edited the lovely CLEOPATRA'S MOON by Vicky Alvear Shecter (@valvearshecter) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@valvearshecter: And I'm Vicky Shecter, author of Cleopatra's Moon. This is my first twitter chat--are there any rules or somesuch we should discuss? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:34 pm 

@chavelaque: If you all have any questions for Vicky or me, feel free to ask them during the chat, & we'll answer them starting ~ 1:15. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:34 pm 
@dulemba: That must have been a fun job! (editing CLEOPATRA'S MOON). #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:35 pm 
@valvearshecter: It was fun but also slightly terrifying for me, esp. since this was my first novel.n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:37 pm 
@chavelaque: It was VERY fun for me to edit & to work w/ Vicky, who was SO enthusiastic... We first got in touch via query letter, right, Vicky? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:38 pm 
@dulemba: Cheryl, Did CLEO coincide with your book Second Site? I'm trying to recall which came first. Did one influence the other? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:39 pm 

@valvearshecter: Yes, I had queried you for my midgrade biography of Cleo...after it got acquired you sent a ltr saying you were interested.n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@LauriCorkum: Was the book nearly perfect when you first submitted it? How much rewriting/revising was required? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@valvearshecter: Which gave me the chance to tell you about the novel in progress. So I kind o came in thru a side door. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@chavelaque: I remember really liking the ENERGY of your bio of Cleopatra, & I thought Cleo was awesome, obvs. But we don't do a lot of nonfic. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:41 pm 

@valvearshecter: @LauriCorkum It was finished, but nowhere near perfect! I did a fair amount of rewriting. Okay, a lot more than a fair amt. ;-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:41 pm 
@chavelaque: ("We" being "Arthur A. Levine Books.") So I was excited to hear about a novel with this untold story of Cleopatra Selene. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Vicky Alvear Shecter and Cheryl Klein are discussing CLEOPATRA'S MOON right now at #cmchat.
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 
@chavelaque: So I responded that I'd love to see the novel, and then your agent @cmiller-callihan sent it to me -- six months later? A year? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 
@valvearshecter: I queried you w/ your Squib (or Squid?) account. Do you still use that? Also it took about 6 months to get it to you. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:43 pm 
@LauriCorkum: Vicky, did Cheryl guide the direction of the revisions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 

@chavelaque: Most of my unsolicited subs come through confs these days, so I don't use SQUIDs anymore, no. Kind of sad, really! They were fun. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 

@dulemba: I love how REAL the religion feels when reading CLEO. You get a true sense of their belief system at the time. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 
@valvearshecter: @LauriCorkum Yes, Cheryl def guided the direction of the revisions. But always with a discussion and collaborative intent. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:46 pm 

@valvearshecter: @dulemba The ancient Egyptians wouldn't have seen "religion" as something separate. It was REALITY, esp with pharaoh as divine. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:47 pm 
@chavelaque: I bought the ms. at auction, which was v. exciting. Scholastic really got behind the book. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:47 pm 
@dulemba: RT @chavelaque: I bought the ms. at auction, which was v. exciting. Scholastic really got behind the book. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 
@valvearshecter: What set the book apart for you, Cheryl? Or any book, really. What grabs you and motivates you to go for a manuscript? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 

@dulemba: Cheryl, was there an element of the story that especially spoke to you? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 
@cathychall: @valvearshecter and @chavelaque discussing CLEOPATRA'S MOON at #CMCHAT now. Read and learn!
November 14, 2011, 5:49 pm 
@chavelaque: CLEOPATRA'S MOON had a lot of the qualities I look for: 1) Awesome story that I hadn't heard before (all the cooler b/c it was TRUE) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:50 pm 

@chavelaque: 2) Great characters (again, awesome b/c true) 3) Cinematic, you-are-there writing w/ wonderful scenes so I felt emotionally involved #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:51 pm 
@chavelaque: & 4) a BIG IDEA at its heart, so it was more than just a retelling of history or a romance -- it was a real exploration of an idea #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, do you think there is more interest in YA historical fiction these days? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@dulemba: Truly, the setting of CLEOPATRA'S MOON was EPIC! I felt like I was THERE. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm
@cathychall: I loved the mother-daughter dynamic of CLEOPATRA'S MOON. Did it start out that way @valvearshecter ? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@chavelaque: In this case, what is free will, and how much do we control our own destinies? Big Ideas explored well always get me excited. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 

@valvearshecter: @cathychall Cathy, absolutely! The mother-daughter thing is what attracted me to the story. I mean, Cleo as "Mom?" It blew me away. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 
@dulemba: And of course the issue of Free Will was so prominent. Was Selene fated to follow her Mom's path, or choose her own? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 
@dulemba: So often during the story I said "You GO girl!" I LOVE Selene's strength. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:54 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, I think there's def. interest in it, tho there may be fatigue w/ individual periods -- harder to sell topics covered a lot #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:55 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Vicky, you had Scholastic, Arthur Levine books, even, bidding on your book at auction? Did you talk to all bidders before deciding? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:55 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, as you wrote the book, what was your benchmark for deciding what to include & what to leave out? What guided you there? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:56 pm 
@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak Yes. I talked to the other editor. I wanted a collaborative rela' w/ an ed.; The other one didn't think it needed... #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:57 pm 
@chavelaque: @dulemba You asked about timing of CM vs. 2ND SIGHT -- I think I bought Vicky's book about a month before I announced my own. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:57 pm 

@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak ...much editing and I KNEW better! LOL Plus, I mean, c'mon--who can resist working with Cheryl Klein? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 
@cathychall: CLEOPATRA'S MOON required a lot of vetting. Were you involved in any of that as an editor, @chavelaque? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 

@dulemba: I learned so much from 2ND SIGHT, I would have loved that by my side while working on revisions if I were Vicky! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 
@valvearshecter: Re: what I left out--there were several real charac's in history that just confused things. For ex, ANOTHER son of Antony's by prior #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@valvearshecter: ...wife. Actually two sons. It just got too confusing with so many of his kids (Antony was a busy guy). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@sally_apokedak: I also think that dealing with suicide is timely today. I liked what Selene chose with her free will. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter ha ha good choice #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:00 pm 
@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak Well, you can't escape the fact that both her parents--Cleopatra & Mark Antony committed suicide. Poor kids! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:01 pm 
@dulemba: Truly, she must have been old beyond her years with all the loss she experienced. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:01 pm 

@chavelaque: Vicky, how did you decide what to invent? For instance, Cleopatra Selene's visit to the Jewish quarter obvs. aren't in his. record. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:02 pm 
@dulemba: I wish you could all get a guided tour through the Carlos Museum with Vicky as Docent. The stories she tells are amazing! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 

@valvearshecter: On inventing: It struck me that this took place a generation and a half before the beginning of Christianity. Free will would soon.. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter Yes, I liked the way you dealt with it. That she could make her own choices. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 
@valvearshecter: ..take hold thruout the West. It made sense to have her grapple with it around the time of the birth of Christianity. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:04 pm 
@valvearshecter: @dulemba Thank you, e! The ancient world is so funny and strange. Also holds up a mirror to our time. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:05 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, what advice would you have for other authors of historical fiction? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:05 pm 
@valvearshecter: I would focus on finding the emotional point that readers TODAY could relate to rather just on facts (You, Cheryl, helped me w/that! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 
@dulemba: They didn't Have hashtags back then, but sentiments weren't so different! What would have happened to Cleopatra's rep on twitter? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 
@valvearshecter: Re: the question of vetting--4 Egyptologists/professors vetted the Cleo biography, which is the platform for the novel. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @dulemba ha #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:08 pm  

@valvearshecter: @dulemba Oh, Cleo's rep on Twitter would have been awful--esp if the Romans controlled it! Can you say, "Flame War?" ;-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:08 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, are you looking for anything in particular these days in submissions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:09 pm 

@chavelaque: @valvearshecter @dulemba That was one of the coolest things re: the book for me -- learning how the Romans ruled history's telling #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:09 pm 

@cathychall: @dulemba HA! Yeah, Vicky, tell us about that Cleopatra smear campaign. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky is very, very passionate about the subject of the biased Romans and how much they hated strong women, esp. Cleopatra! :-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 

@chavelaque: Which is great. LOVE an author with both passion & knowledge, & the ability to tame both for his/her fiction. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 
@RhodeSoft: @valvearshecter Did you have to pay for vetting or does the publisher pay? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 

@dulemba: "History is defined by the winners" - which is why Cleopatra Selene's story needed telling! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Smear campaign was amazing. Octavian claimed Cleo drugged Antony and sexually enslaved him. He'd lost his "manhood" etc. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 

@Scholastic: Editor @chavelaque is hosting a chat with author @valvearshecter -- follow #CMchat to participate! #yalitchat #cleopatrasmoon
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 

@valvearshecter: @RhodeSoft No I did not pay for the vetting. One classicist from Yale wanted payment but the British Egyptologists jumped in happily #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:12 pm 

@chavelaque: I'm looking for the same things I always look for -- the 1-2-3-4 qualities listed earlier about characters, writing, & big ideas. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:13 pm 

@dulemba: The irony being, strong women still face uphill battles in today's society. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:13 pm 
@chavelaque: Also, I tend to say, "A plot we can sell" -- a story whose conflict/mystery/lack has clear stakes & meaning for readers. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:14 pm 
@valvearshecter: @chavelaque So as long as the manuscript covers those qualities, it doesn't matter what genre? Fantasy? Paranormal, etc.? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:14 pm 
@chavelaque: Agewise, I have a lot of YA on upcoming lists, so I'd love some more great middle-grade. I <3 all genres, pretty much. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:15 pm 
@cathychall: @valvearshecter Do you think that's typical? Not having to pay for vetting, I mean? Or are Egyptologists just really nice? ;-) #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:15 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Depends on indi's involved. Bio pub told me they often go to British experts cuz they don't expect $ like Americans #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:17 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, what are you reading for pleasure right now? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:18 pm 

@chavelaque: I just finished THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE by @maureenjohnson, which I loved -- she writes such good & complex teen-girl books. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:19 pm 

@dulemba: Vicky - What are You reading? Don't you read a gazillion books a year? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:19 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter I was also interested because the story took place just before the time of Christ. You painted the world so well. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@chavelaque: I once heard "literary depth" defined as "a sense of the complexity of reality," & I'd say that's another thing I look for in mss. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm  

@LaFabuliste: @chavelaque You told me once "People read a book for plot, people LOVE a book for its characters." That, I think, is most wise. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 
@valvearshecter: Right now I'm reading THE PERICLES COMMISSION by Gary Corby. Fun, fun historical fic set at dawn of democracy in ancient Greece #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@cathychall: @valvearshecter Would CM have been a different book with a different editor? Wondering about editors' style of well, editing...#cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@chavelaque: & @maureenjohnson always has that, for all her books are packaged to look like chicklit (understandably, from a pub perspective). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 
@RhodeSoft: @valvearshecter @chavelaque Cheryl-How should we pitch to u? Email/snail mail? Whole manuscript? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Absolutely. Cheryl really helped shape the book with me. It was an awesome process. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 

@chavelaque: @RhodeSoft My submissions guidelines are at, though I'm officially closed right now. So much to read! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:22 pm 

@valvearshecter: @chavelaque @maureenjohnson I love her books too. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:22 pm 
@chavelaque: @cathychall I'm very big on characters DOING things & action plot matching emotional plot, so I tend to push my authors toward that #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@dulemba: Cheryl, Can you turn off the 'editor' and just read for fun? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@chavelaque: @cathychall (Not to say other editors don't!) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@chavelaque: We're signing off in five minutes, CLEOPATRA'S MOON fans -- any last-minute questions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:24 pm  

@valvearshecter: There are lots of wild Egyptian facts:Pharoah Pepi 1 had slaves dipped in honey so the flies would leave him alone & go after them! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:24 pm 

@valvearshecter: Just had to slip a weird fact in! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm 
@dulemba: Buy the book and share it with your mom/daughter book clubs - it is perfect! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm
@chavelaque: @dulemba Oh yes! Love reading for fun. But I will put books down if they're not satisfying my editorial standards. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm 
@valvearshecter: @chavelaque How often does that happen with pubbed books? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:26 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, given that Romans named their daughters after their dads, no matter what -- what would your Roman name be? :-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:26 pm 

@cathychall: @chavelaque That match-up is what makes CLEOPATRA'S MOON so strong. Vicky nailed that! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:27 pm 
@valvearshecter: My Roman name would end up as Ernesta or Ernestina! Ack. What would your Roman name be?n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:27 pm 
@chavelaque: @valvearshecter Hrmm. . . . About once every 3-4 books? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:28 pm 
@chavelaque: @valvearshecter That's hilarious. I'd be Alana the Elder -- my little sister Alana the Younger. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:28 pm 

@chavelaque: @cathychall Couldn't agree more! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 

@cathychall: @valvearshecter That is why I love you on Facebook--among other wonderful qualities. But yeah, the weird facts are awesome. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 
@dulemba: You don't even want to know what mine would be. Some weird Roman/Bavarian thing with too many syllables. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 

@valvearshecter: @cathychall Thanks, there's a never ending supply of weird ancient facts! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:30 pm 

@dulemba: I adore History with a Twist at - Vicky talks about more weird facts. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:30 pm 
@valvearshecter: Oh yeah..I would be Ernestina the Younger. Forgot that all sisters carried the father's name (sigh). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 
@LauriCorkum: Great chat Vicky and Cheryl! Quite informative; thanks for taking the time out of your day to answer our questions. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@dulemba: And her Friday Funnies are always hilarious! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@chavelaque: It's 1:30 here, so it's time for @valvearshecter & I to sign off. Ditto @dulemba's praise for Vicky's blog: #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@valvearshecter: @dulemba Thanks! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@chavelaque: Thanks very much for stopping by, all! & thanks again for your forbearance, country music fans. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 
@dulemba: Thanks to the CMchat community for your patience! Back to your regularly scheduled programming... #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 
@cathychall: Thanks, @valvearshecter and @chavelaque I can always use a little Egypt fun during lunch! #cmchat bye!
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Yes, thanks both of you. I don't get twitter, but this was pretty cool. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:33 pm 

@valvearshecter: Thank you Cheryl Klein. And thanks all who dropped in. And to the CMchat folks, thanks for your patience/won't happen again! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:33 pm 

Copyright 2011 TweetReports  

Q&A: Francisco X. Stork, author of MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD

Earlier this month, Francisco X. Stork's much-acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World came out in paperback. Francisco and I are working on our third book together (after Marcelo and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors), but I had never actually hosted him for a Q&A here, so I asked him to answer a few questions for me, and he was kind enough to agree.

Could you tell us a little bit about how Marcelo came to be? 
Marcelo had a long journey before it came to be in its final form. The first version I wrote was not about Marcelo but about his mother, Aurora. In this story, Aurora enters Marcelo’s room a year after his death and discovers his journals. The journals reveal a very special young man. It was when transcribing the journals of Marcelo that his voice became very powerful. It was as if Marcelo was urging me to write his story. So I wrote about him, a book that I initially intended as an adult book. It had Marcelo traveling to Mexico in search of Ixtel, the young woman whose picture he discovers in his father’s files. Faye Bender, my agent, sent this version to adult publishers without success. I then decided to rewrite some of it and we sent it to young adult publishers and this is how the version you got came across your desk. As you know, there were major revisions after you accepted it. The trip to Mexico was canned. The story became more “local.” I think that with your help, I rewrote about sixty percent of the book. [CK note: For my own account of the editorial process, click here.]

The other thing I want to mention is that I never set out to write a book about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. I created Marcelo, paying attention to the voice that was presented to me, and only later discovered that someone like him would probably be diagnosed with something. It was then that I connected him to Asperger’s syndrome.

Has there been a pattern to where your books begin for you? That is, do they usually begin with a philosophical idea to explore, or the characters, or the situation – or is it different with every book? Once you have the initial seed, whatever it is, where do you go from there? 
It is very difficult to tell just exactly how the seed for a novel is planted or where the seed comes from. It’s a combination of philosophical idea and voice. In Marcelo, for example, I asked myself what would happen if a very innocent, saintly young man discovered a file that would show him the evil and suffering of the world. Once I started playing with this idea, Marcelo’s unique voice came into being. Then the philosophical idea was put aside and the character and the story took over. In the case of Death Warriors, I asked myself what would happen if I put together two very different young men, one who was very down-to-earth, practical and consumed by revenge, and the other, idealistic, philosophical and also gravely ill. Then the voices of Pancho and D.Q. came into being and they led the way. It is very important to me to let character become the driving force of the book.

You often write beautifully on your blog about the act of writing itself. What is your personal writing process like? Do you draft longhand, or on a computer? Write a full draft and then revise, or revise as you go? Do you plan books out, or write as the characters direct you? Do you have a conscious process for developing your characters, or do they just reveal themselves as you write? 
I have a full-time job working as an attorney for a state agency that develops affordable housing. The day job has forced me to find a compatible writing process, which is not easy. When I start writing a novel, I need to accept the fact that the finished product is three to four years down the line. So I strive for patience and I try to be kind to myself. If I can write a page a day, that’s wonderful. Some days I write five pages and some days I don’t write anything. I usually write directly on my laptop and I try to keep an attitude of play about the writing. Being playful for me means that I follow where the characters take me with only a vague notion of where I’m going or what I’m going to write about tomorrow. Somehow tomorrow always takes care of itself. I usually try to develop the character’s voice or personality before I start writing and that happens over a long period of gestation. During that period I will often try out different voices in a separate journal. But, of course, characters grow and develop as I write about them and they quite often surprise me.

We’re two years out now from the publication of Marcelo, and almost three years from when you finished writing and revising it. What is your relationship to the characters at this point? Do they still feel present for you, or have they faded away a bit in favor of the people you’re writing now?  
The characters from Marcelo are still very present for me. Every once in a while I’ll ask myself: What would Marcelo do? It’s a terrible burden to create characters that are better human beings than you can ever hope to be! Now and then I’ll read a passage from Marcelo for inspiration (usually one of the dialogues with Rabbi Herschel). Reading Marcelo at this point is like reading something written by someone else.
Do you know what the characters from Marcelo are doing now? [This next passage, with Francisco's answer, is blanked out to avoid spoilers and for readers who might have their own visions of the action. Highlight to read:] In my mind, Marcelo finished his last year of high school. He had some fitting-in problems but he managed okay. His mom and dad unfortunately got divorced and Marcelo has had to deal with that. He is going to nursing school in New Hampshire. He visits Jasmine and Amos every weekend and is currently trying to convince Amos to buy some ponies. He and Jasmine are in love.

You wrote once on your blog about Marcelo, “the role of religion in the book is in the asking certain type of questions when the asking is done with mind, heart, body and soul.” I would say all your books reflect this kind of religion – the asking of those big questions, which come to occupy the characters’ and the book’s whole heart. To what extent are you conscious of those questions when you’re writing the book, and to what extent do you discover them later and weave them into the revision? 
Let’s just say that I’m semi-conscious of the big questions during the first draft. I know the big questions are there and I’ve created young people capable of asking these questions, but because I’m writing a novel and not a philosophical essay, I’ve let the characters and the story take over. Then, after I finish the first draft, you have asked me to write a letter that addresses the big themes in the book. It is through this letter that I become aware of those big questions and how I was trying to deal with them. Once this awareness is present, you and I can revise the novel in such a way that the big questions become part of the flesh and blood of the book.

What are you reading now for pleasure? 

Whenever I’m in the process of writing, like I am now, I like to reread those authors who have the kind of language and rhythms and characters that are inspiring. For me, the work of people like Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoievski, Cervantes always do the trick. I also read every day something from or about a world religion.

What makes you tell stories?
I’ve always liked Flannery O’Connor’s response to the question: Why do you write? “Because it’s worse when I don’t,” she answered. So it is for me.  Telling stories is part of why I came into this world and so when I don’t write, I have a sense that I’m not quite living up to my end of the bargain. Of course, writing is not the only reason (or the most important) why I came into this world, so I try not to be anxious about the process of writing. I do what I can. I try my best. What else can I do? There is also a social element connected to the telling of stories. I tell stories about intelligent, sensitive Latino young people who in many ways serve as role models for other young people and that fulfills a sense of personal and social responsibility.

Thank you, Francisco!