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Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Anne Heltzel

Posted by Caela Carter On August - 29 - 2011

 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Anne HeltzelOne boring day in the library, I was searching Amazon for books with debut authors coming out in 2011 and I came across the name Anne Heltzel. Huh, I thought, that sound familiar. Upon further inspection I discovered that this debut author was not only a graduate of our fantastic program at New School, but also attended my alma matre, The University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!). It dawned on me that I had actually met Anne Heltzel at ND (through my musical-comedy writing brother, Danny Carter) long before any of us were writers. I caught up with Anne to congratulate her on Circle Nine which is debuting in September, and to catch up with her on life post-ND and post-New School.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember, but I always assumed it was unattainable as a career. I’ve always been passionate about books (and in particular, what books do for kids). I wrote for myself, in local contests, and later for undergrad electives. I did it because it brought me all kinds of enjoyment, but there are so many things that seem impossible when you grow up in a small Midwestern community. (Namely: creative/impractical careers.) I imagine it would have been different had I grown up in New York and been exposed to professional writers on a regular basis as a kid. (Not better, just different.)

 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Anne HeltzelI didn’t really do anything much post-college before “officially” becoming a writer. Once I decided to work toward my MFA, there was never a moment when becoming a published author was not the final goal. But I did random filler things to make money while in grad school. I had a bizarre experience working for a fitness company (where I was lawsuit-worthy harassed, by a Brazilian jiu jitsu master). I babysat every day after work for two years for a family I am still close to. (They now live in Paris, and I’m visiting them in the fall!). I was an assistant to a literary agent; I was an editorial assistant; I tutored algebra and geometry and writing on the weekends; and I moved to India for a year to travel and write. I also sold old clothes at Beacon’s Closet or on eBay when short of cash, and I came frighteningly close to nude modeling for a painter and, on a separate occasion, a photographer. (In the end I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I was trying to write children’s books, for God’s sake.) Right now, I’m working as an Associate Editor at Penguin.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of Circle Nine? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Circle Nine is the story of Abby, a girl who loses her entire identity following a traumatic incident. She wakes up near a burning building next to Sam, a guy who says he knows who she is. She trusts him because she has no memories and therefore no choice. They have an intense romantic relationship that, to Abby, seems perfect…until memories of her past slowly begin seeping through the façade of the life she and Sam have built. Then she realizes that the things she thought were perfect have a sort of sinister underbelly. She has to figure out who she is and who Sam is and make some difficult choices about moving forward.

This book was so weird to write. It started as a story about a girl who meets a guitar-playing guy in the subway, and she gets off at his stop and realizes he’s from a totally different world. Aside from the obvious (though not purposeful) Harry Potter-rip-off aspect, it sounds way better than Circle Nine, right? Anyway, I kept writing it and writing it and it just didn’t feel right. Then this random voice popped into my head in the form of a sentence, so I wrote it down. That was the voice that felt right, so I scrapped 100+ pages and started over. Once I had the voice, I wrote the story in two months. I dreamed about it all the time. I was in a very difficult emotional place, and I think that’s where the darkness that permeates the book came from. So then I gave it to my agent (Adams Literary, whom I’d signed based on a different project) just before Christmas in 2009. Josh called me just after Christmas to tell me he’d stayed up all night reading the book, and he took it on submission right away. It sold a couple of weeks later in early 2010 to Hilary van Dusen at Candlewick. The book is coming out in September, so it actually sold a full 20 months prior to publication.

We notice that a lot of the reviews call Circle Nine a “psychological thriller.” Do you agree with this categorization? Did you realize that’s what you were writing while you were writing it?

Yes, I guess it’s a psychological thriller. (Heavy on the psychological, light on the thriller) No, I had no idea what I was writing. I just went with it. The voice had me so tight in its clutches that (this is going to sound insane and melodramatic, sorry!) it felt like Abby was telling me the story and I was just transcribing. It was the weirdest writing experience I’ve ever had, and it has not happened to me again since, alas!

What’s your writing process?

When I was writing full-time, my typical day looked like this:
-Wake up obscenely late. (Say 10 or 11.) Make coffee. Make eggs! Or maybe go to the bakery for a muffin. Read the news. Answer emails (if by some miracle my unreliable Indian internet was working). Dawdle. Open Word Doc. Stare at previous day’s writing. Write furiously for an hour or five, depending on level of inspiration. (Write 5 pages minimum, sometimes up to 20.) Go to gym? Or maybe just watch movie. Read book. Make dinner. Die of boredom. Even though I was in India, I lacked a community of fellow writers (at least for the first six months or so), and I felt lonely and claustrophobic. It was difficult. Amazing, but difficult.

Now I’m working full-time, so writing is relegated to the occasional weekday morning (at Café Regular across the street from my Brooklyn apartment) or weekend afternoon/evening. But I have writer-friends to hang out with, so writing has become a community-oriented experience for me. I usually write in cafes or bars in Brooklyn – anywhere out of the apartment! My inspiration can come from anywhere – any weird detail I notice during the day (like a burned-out jeep I noticed on the street, or a quirky exchange I had with my barista). I use basically anything that moves me emotionally, EXCEPT my personal relationships. Those are sacred, and I never want the people who are close to me to feel exploited. Okay, I broke that rule maybe once in Circle Nine. But never again. And I’m not telling you where.

What has your path to publication been like?

It’s been long and ever-intriguing! I suppose the most surprising part has been dealing with the public aspects of this private craft. Writing is so personal – and then there’s your manuscript in the world, for anyone to comment on. So far, people’s reactions (good and bad) have been much stronger than I anticipated. In terms of The New School: some faculty members were particularly supportive when I was a student there. Tor Seidler was emotionally supportive, because he seemed to believe in my talent. And David Levithan was the first to suggest, via my agent, that I try a YA voice — up to that point I’d been focusing on MG — and that paid off in a big way.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

I once read or heard somewhere that 80% of getting published is finishing the manuscript. I think there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it, but knowing that a large part of writing is sheer work – and that you just have to sit down and do it, much like any other difficult task – has been somehow comforting.

My advice: care about your novel. If you’re emotionally attached to your subject matter, it will automatically seem more authentic and powerful.

206452 194729600564419 190479587656087 434039 7339124 n 200x300 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Anne HeltzelWhat was your favorite book when you were a teenager? What are you reading now?

When I was a teenager, I was in love with This Side of Paradise by Fitzgerald. When I was extremely young, I loved Little Brother and Little Sister by The Brothers Grimm. Now I like to skip around. I’m reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. (So far so good! The writing is beautiful.) And I’ve been flipping through Nine Stories (Salinger) and some other short story collections while I’m on the train. I have a lot of reading to do for work, so personal reading is a rare and treasured experience.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m writing a dark, grounded YA for Candlewick, and I have a thriller signed up with Penguin under a pseudonym. They’ll both be out in 2013. I think I might like to give fantastical Middle Grade another try after that. Otherwise, who knows? As long as my writing and my relationships continue to grow, I am not averse to adventure and change. Maybe more travel! I just want to live a good story. =)

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I do believe in the wonders of being a part of a supportive writing community. I don’t personally belong to any writing groups, mostly because of my day job – I read and critique manuscripts all day long, and I’m not sure I could take on any extra editorial-esque endeavors right now. Plus, I’m private and don’t like many people to read my writing prior to completion of a semi-respectable draft. But I do have one friend whom I exchange with on occasion, and I frequently write in close proximity to a bunch of amazing, Brooklyn-based writers (many of whom I met through the editing world). Going through the process with a bunch of other like-minded people helps a lot. And then when the successes (and setbacks) come around, it’s great to have people in your life who really get it.

Thanks so much for stopping by TWB, Anne! Readers: be on the lookout for anneheltzel.com coming soon!

Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Interviews Author Sydney Salter

Posted by Teen Writers Bloc On August - 5 - 2011

 Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Interviews Author Sydney SalterA couple years ago, through Cynthea Liu’s “Take the Dare: Show You Care” on-line auction, I had the privilege of having author Sydney Salter critique a few pages of my novel-in-progress. Not only did Sydney help me craft a stronger first chapter, but she was also very encouraging. (My ego was nicely stroked when she told me I could “definitely write”!) Since then, I’ve become a fan of her books and was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I became a writer when I first started keeping a daily diary in high school. I thought I was just mooning and swooning over various boys, but it turned out that I was developing my YA voice.

I continued writing in my journal, working into short stories after I graduated from college with an English degree. I worked a lot of really boring jobs, but I’d fill notebooks with writing practice during my lunch hour. I started writing children’s stories once I had children, but I quickly realized that I’d rather write 50,000 words than 500!

Now I work on my novels while my daughters are in school. I’m grateful to have so much time every day.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of Jungle Crossing? How did you come up with the concept for the book? 

 Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Interviews Author Sydney SalterJungle Crossing is actually the first novel I wrote. Before a family trip to Mexico, I decided to write a little something to show my daughters the amazing Mayan culture. I ended up writing a 50,000 word novel that they weren’t nearly old enough to read! Here’s a synopsis:

Jungle Crossing is the intertwining coming-of-age stories of two girls, one who reluctantly travels to Mexico with her family over summer vacation, the other an ancient Mayan royal stolen from her town and forced to make the treacherous journey back home.

What does a typical writing day look like?

Usually, I race home from driving carpool, make a cup of coffee, sometimes do a quick writing exercise in my practice notebook, and dive into my WIP—whether I’m drafting or researching. I take a quick lunch break and watch the Hot Topics on The View. I continue to work until my daughters get home from school.

Inspiration is lovely when it comes, but I find that diligent work produces better results. I love this Anthony Trollope quote, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

 Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Interviews Author Sydney Salter What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

Too bumpy! I spent five years working daily, writing five novels, before selling my fourth manuscript. I had little things to celebrate along the way: contest wins, magazine sales, a close call here and there.

What’s surprised me: it doesn’t get any easier. I’ve spent the last two years working on stories that haven’t sold—yet, I hope.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. I do a lot of conference manuscript critiques these days and I can immediately tell when a writer is a reader–or not. I advise writers to read anything and everything.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

I loved Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte. Right now I’m reading a lot of nonfiction on a bunch of crazy topics for the WIP I’ll be starting in September. But I set all that aside to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Great characters!

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I’d be so lonely without my writing group! I meet with a group of writers one morning a week. I don’t always bring writing to share (I like to finish projects first), but I do think that creating a writing community is essential. That’s why I also volunteer my time as a Regional Advisor for SCBWI.

 Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Interviews Author Sydney Salter You’ve also written My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters and Swoon at Your Own Risk. You have a knack for humor, even while your books cover serious subjects such as self-esteem and family secrets. Do you find it easy or difficult to mesh humor with the serious side of life?

If I couldn’t laugh about my problems, I’d spend my life curled up in a ball in the corner of my closet–the one my old-almost-dying cat just peed in. Sigh. I naturally mix humor with the serious side of life. Every. Single. Darn. Day.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’ve got a new idea that I’m super excited to start writing once school starts, a manuscript that I plan to workshop at an upcoming SCBWI retreat, and some short stories that will be published as e-books. The First Time, a collection of stories written by the 2009 Debutantes, will be available in October.

To learn more about Sydney Salter visit her webpage: www.sydneysalter.com.

K.L. Gore is resides in upstate New York with her husband and two children. A part-time writing instructor, she gives writing advice on her blog: www.klgore.com. Her stage play Something Blue (not to be confused with the novel of the same title) was performed on the theater stage, and she’s written and performed puppet shows for local schools and libraries. She loves to read just about anything. Represented by Regal Literary, she is now focusing her efforts on YA contemporary novels. (Although she is sneaking a little MG fantasy on the side.)

thosethatwake Debut Author Interview: Those That Wake Author Jesse Karp Talks TechnologyDebut author Jesse Karp wrote what would become his first novel, Those That Wake, more than eight years ago — so it’s no wonder that his advice for writers on the road to publication is “don’t give up!” We caught up with the New York City-based school librarian to talk technology, writing while parenting two girls, and, of course, perseverance!

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I grew up in New York City and work there still as a school librarian. This is a fine example of my urge towards storytelling, which I can’t remember ever not having. The moment I could listen to and understand stories, I wanted to tell them, too.  I’ve been writing for real since I was in college, for all anybody cared to notice. I had piled up ten manuscripts before someone showed interest in Those That Wake. As it is my first published work, I’ve not launched myself into writing fulltime just yet. There are lots of ways to express yourself in stories and writing is a great one, but reading to kids is pretty fantastic, too.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of Those That Wake? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Those That Wake is about two teenagers who stumble onto a hidden machinery that secretly runs our world and must pay the price for this knowledge.

The concept grew out of three things for me: 1) My love of cinematic paranoia/conspiracy thrillers, movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Parallax View, Marathon Man and All the President’s Men, which suggest that the world does not actually work the way it appears to. 2) Reading a book called Dark Nature: a Natural History of Evil by Lyall Watson, which introduced me to a fascinating theory about how ideas are transmitted. 3) Looking around me and seeing how we are giving more and more of our attention and resources to electronic media and communication technology, which sometimes works to our advantage and sometimes really, really does not. 4) Underlying all of this was the fact that I was writing Those That Wake as my first daughter was about to be born. I was trying to distill a single, powerful message that I would like to pass along to her and I came to one which I think is of great value these days: don’t give up.

Why did you decide to set your book in New York City versus other American cities?

Having lived in New York City all my life, I know it well and it’s close to my heart, two elements that are crucial to creating a sense of realism in setting, I think. New York is also an ideal representation of the modern urban world and so served as a good microcosm of how, it seems to me, much of society is developing technologically and socially.

You incorporate an interesting message about technology in Those That Wake. What inspired this?

Just looking around, really. Once upon a time, we envisioned the future as an exploration of the vast reaches of space, moving outwards to meet our potential. We have, in fact, gone exactly the opposite way: into the digital innerspace of the internet and focusing back inwards on ourselves through social networking and communication technology.

Those That Wake appears to have a very extreme stance on technological progress, which is not altogether analogous to my own. Writing suspense, conflict and speculation is, of course, partially dependent on exaggerating things. I absolutely see the extraordinary advantages we’re getting out of our technological evolution, but I think these technologies are changing us psychologically, socially and culturally in ways we’re not even aware of. Imagine hurrying down the street without looking in front of you. Could be dangerous, right? It’s the same thing with rushing headlong down the pathway that technology has opened for us. That’s the message about technology I hope Those That Wake manages to convey: look where you’re going.

JesseKarp1 Debut Author Interview: Those That Wake Author Jesse Karp Talks TechnologyWhat does a typical writing day look like for you?

As a father of two girls, a husband and a guy with a day job, I’m sorry to say that a typical writing “day” for me begins after my family has gone to bed. I can get anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour done per night, which works pretty well if I’m disciplined about it and supplement it with lots of focused writing on days when I’m not working.

Where I write is pretty much always at home, though occasionally I’ll head out to a public library if I need to assure myself of quiet and have absolutely no distractions.

When I travel for work (to conferences and conventions), I can get a LOT of writing done.

Inspiration, I suppose, comes from everything I see, hear or do, though the truth is I barely think about that anymore. My head is so filled with ideas now that I’ve had the validation of getting a book published, the trick is in slowing the inspiration down so that I can write enough to catch up with it. I’ve also found that, once I get going on a story, the characters and situations begin demanding their own paths and resolutions, and it becomes easier to lay that out before them.

What has your path to publication been like?

I wrote Those That Wake just before the birth of my first daughter nearly eight years ago. Like my other manuscripts, it collected dust and rejection letters for a good long time before, in trying to get a short story published, I was asked whether I had a manuscript with a similar tone. That was how Those That Wake found an agent.

Two things have been a great surprise to me. First, how much can change about a story while the nature of the characters, the basic structure and the essential themes remain intact. This is a tribute to a truly talented editor (who, in this case, was my agent – he and I went through extensive revisions before it ever saw an actual editor’s desk).

The second thing that surprised me was just how powerful certain forces in the book market are. Barnes and Noble, for example, has an extraordinary amount of influence on everything from the cover that’s chosen for a book to the way the book is actually sold. Much of a shopper’s experience is very carefully guided within the stores by the by where and  how certain books are displayed. There’s a great deal more going on behind the marketing and selling of a book than most of us ever know.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

The best writing advice I ever got is, possibly, the best plain old advice I ever got: “Don’t complain.  Work harder.”

I would add to that the very simple to say but very hard to do “don’t give up.” Seriously, it took me twenty years to get a book published.  It CAN happen. Do. Not. Give. Up.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

The House of Stairs by William Sleator was hugely influential in my reading life and in how I viewed the world. I didn’t even realize how much my view of things and my early ideas about Those That Wake owed to Sleator’s book until I reread it just recently. It’s a riveting and relevant piece of work.

I just finished Among Wolves by Scott O’Connor, about a boy who starts to believe that his family has been replaced by impostors; a fast, clever and chilling read. I’m about to go back to some of Thomas Ligotti’s short stories, which capture a disturbing tone and a sense of the deeply (and darkly) weird unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I have a non-fiction book coming out in October called Graphic Novels in Your School Library, which is about using graphic novels in an educational context (I teach a graduate class on the history and analysis of comics and graphic novels when I’m not working with little kids or writing).

I’m also finishing up the first draft of the sequel to Those That Wake.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

The only community of writers I’ve ever really belonged to were the one or two writing classes I took in college. I do find constructive criticism very helpful (necessary, even), if sometimes difficult to hear. If ego can be kept out of the exchanges, I find the idea of writing communities absolutely agreeable, though as I said, this is sheerly in the abstract as I have no real experience with them.

Photos courtesy Houghton Mifflin and Jesse Karp

Debut Author Interview: Dawn Metcalf’s Multicultural Paranormal Luminous

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On June - 28 - 2011

Luminous hires 197x300 Debut Author Interview: Dawn Metcalfs Multicultural Paranormal LuminousIn the chaos that was Book Expo of America in New York City, I met a wonderful author named Dawn Metcalf over lunch thanks to the wonderful Kate Milford. Along with another debut author, Shari Arnold, we discussed books, agents, publishers etc, while eating overpriced food. We also attended the YA Buzz panel together, and learned about many of the new YA books pubbing next year. I was so excited to learn about her book because 1) she’s a fascinating and funny person, and 2) she features a minority character in the starring role of her novel. Despite her busy schedule, I was able to catch up with her for an interview.


1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer? What did you do before you “officially” became a writer. What made you want to be a writer? Do you write fulltime now?

The role of Dawn Metcalf will be played by the tall brunette in the off-the-shoulder, floor-length leather straightjacket. Makeup by Clinique, buckles by Jada Pinkett-Smith, hair by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
I have no good excuse for the way I write. I lived in a normal, loving, suburban home, studied hard, went to college, went to graduate school, got married, had babies, and settled down in northern Connecticut. Despite this wholesome lifestyle, I’ve been clearly corrupted by fairy tales, puppet visionaries, British humour and graphic novels. As a result, I write dark, quirky, and sometimes humorous speculative fiction. 

My debut YA novel, LUMINOUS, is due out June 30, 2011 by Dutton Books.

How did I become a writer? I sat down and I wrote from age 5 until the present tense where I sit down and I write. A writer writes, so that’s pretty easy! What’s a lot harder is writing professionally (i.e. getting paid for it) as I am new to that business, I can say that the best thing I ever did was join a professional organization (in may case, it was the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) and then take myself seriously enough to go to a conference, pay for some professional feedback, sit back and LISTEN. It made all the difference in the world.

Before I officially became a writer I was (and still am) an educator and advocate on gender and self-esteem. I design curricula and speak on issues like media fluency, diversity, bullying, communication, pregnancy prevention, safe sex, HIV/AIDS education, and GLBTQ advocacy. Aside from that I’ve been, in no particular order, a freelance writer, a waitress, a secretary, a bouncer, a creative consultant, a teacher, a health and wellness coordinator, a Jewish education director, and a daughter/sister/girlfriend/wife/mom. Aside from all of that, I’ve always been a full-time writer (when I’m not eating or sleeping)!

2. Can you give us a quick synopsis of LUMINOUS? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Consuela Chavez discovers that she can remove her skin and craft new ones from the world around her to keep people from dying before their time.

Honestly, the book idea came out of a rant about the lack of cool minority superheroines and the blessing/curse of having a partial-photographic memory. Some memories of a Mexican anthropology textbook bumped up against my love of comic books and media greats like Joss Whedon and Tim Burton met up with old cult favorites like Sliders, Greatest American Hero & Quantum Leap. The result was the idea of a modern, teenage Lady of the Dead, a sort of Guardian angel ala Dia de los Muertos.

My brain is a scary place to play!

3. What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write? Where does your inspiration come from? I know you have little ones, how do you balance mom-time and work-time?
LOL! I’m still working on that balance but I write when the kids are napping, at school, or at bedtime, asleep. I write in my office when the house is quiet and I have nothing but my piles of notes and notebooks to distract me. (Except the phone. I’m from the Midwest and trained to be polite so I always answer it.) And then I write between 2-3,000 words a day. I greet my husband when he’s home from work, read a little bit or watch TV, then go to sleep and start the cycle all over again the next day.
4. What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
My dream of being an author is that I would quietly write books that would get snapped up, published, I’d see them on a shelf and happily receive checks for ongoing royalties. While this daydream might have been true once upon a time–along with princesses, dragons, and the occasional ogre–nowaways there’s this thing called “online presence”. THAT has been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process today.  (“But…but…I thought my job was writing *books*…?”) Luckily, I happen to like being social so that’s not a problem; balancing writing on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, chats, group blogs, Verla Kay, SCBWI, etc. with research as opposed to the actual writing-writing? That’s a major challenge.
5. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
Jane Yolen’s “B.I.C. = Butt In Chair” is perhaps my favorite. But here’s some others for consideration:
1) “Give yourself permission to suck.” (Maureen Johnson & John Green who’s also known for “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome!”) Write that first draft & do a happy dance. Hooray! You did it!
2) Set that manuscript aside for 4-6 weeks to percolate and think about what it’s done before you start editing and WAAAAY before you send it anywhere.
3) Have a critique group or critique partner shred it seven ways from Sunday.
4) In the meanwhile, between edits, submissions or any other period of waiting, save yourself the stress headache and start writing another completely separate project. Keep writing! It keeps the crazies at bay.
015 Metcalf crop1 244x300 Debut Author Interview: Dawn Metcalfs Multicultural Paranormal Luminous6. What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
My favorite books were all spec fic, often cyberpunk and nanotech by folks like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, or whirly head-games of the sci-fi/fantasy persuasion like Spider Robinson, Neil Gaiman, or Joan D. Vinge. Now I’m a huge fan of Scott Westerfeld, Holly Black, and MT Anderson so really, not much has changed. On my nightstand I have WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick, FOREVER by Maggie Steifvater, and DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor.
7. What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
A lot depends on how LUMINOUS does whether I get to continue Consuela’s story, but I have another fantasy out on sub that’s a sort of Peter Pan/Meet Joe Black love story with bladed weapons. I’m working right now on a sort of alternate-near-future tale of four friends and the year that changed everything, and I’m always scribbling down notes from persistent epiphanies that won’t leave me alone until I do.


Having just achieved my second degree black belt after ten years of training, I’m looking forward to learning more and my children both start school full-time and that will be the next stage of my Mommyhood that’s kind of amazing and a little sniffly as well. If you had asked me if this would be what my life would be like two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago, I would have never guessed. Life has a way of surprising you so I never quite know what to expect! But all the Big Dream goals I had while growing up have been met…now I need more Big Dreams!

8. Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
Yes, yes, and OHMIGWAD yes! The only road to sanity is paved with the generous flagstones of folks who have gone before and have graciously paved the way and held out a hand to others on the path. Experienced authors or fellow would-be-writers are truly the best way to keep tabs on not only the industry and its changes, but your own sanity as well. These are the eyes, ears, shoulders, hugs and wise counsel we all need to succeed intact. I could never thank my crit partners enough nor could I ever repay all the kindnesses done on SCBWI, Verla Kay, the Tenners, the Elevensies, Enchanted Inkpot, Fangs Fur & Fey and other writing communities and the people out there sharing it all. So I Pay It Forward and love helping the next person on their journey.
9. Why did you decide to use multicultural characters, like your main protagonist Consuela? Did this help or hinder your publication process?
When the idea came to me, it was Consuela who was the skeleton in the old Jose Guadelupe Posada caricature, able to create otherworldly skins and zip across parallel worlds; she was Mexican-American from a loving family who had a strong core faith. I didn’t choose Consuela as much as Consuela chose me. I had to do a lot of research and ask a lot of intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) questions, keep my ears open, learn an awful lot and get some insight into who she was and why she welcomed this compulsion to help other people she’d never met. The next up was Sissy and where her powers came from, then Wish, then V. By the time I was able to mine my own culture, studies and experiences with characters like Yehudah, Nikki, and Joseph, I was well on my way to making a full multi-cultural cast that a Benneton ad would envy. That said, that wasn’t my aim, but rather each character had a unique way of seeing life and their powers were shaped by their ethno-cultures or life experiences; what I wanted was to have an “American college” feeling to the world and I think that’s what I got!
I’d like to think that diversity is a positive force in YA lit but there’s been an awful lot of backlash–everything from “whitewashing” controversies to who is and isn’t “allowed” to write Other Stories and the ever-present fear of somehow “getting it wrong”–but the truth is, I think we are all writing the human experience, full of questions and emotions, fears and failures, triumphs and dreams. I think the thing that helps you get published is working hard at your craft, being respectful in your research, believing in yourself and your work, and putting it out there. There is always room for good writing.

Debut Author Interview: Cara Lynn Shultz Talks Spellbound

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On June - 22 - 2011

spellbound cover 186x300 Debut Author Interview: Cara Lynn Shultz Talks SpellboundWay back in the day, when I was an intern at the much-missed Teen People magazine, this fun chick named Cara Lynn Shultz was one, too. Our paths crossed again every so often at People, but I didn’t know that, like myself, Cara’s long been toiling away at a novel or two. And now we finally get check out Spellbound, Cara’s first effort. TeenWritersBloc.com caught up with her to chat about paranormal pursuits, marketing yourself and making time to write.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I’ve always been a writer/editor, just in a different capacity. I was the Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper, the Fordham Observer, and after college I worked in magazines as an entertainment journalist and editor. But I didn’t write fiction professionally, just recreationally.

When I was fresh out of college, I used to email my friend Vanessa little stories about characters I came up with who lived in New York. The characters were seniors in college, named Claire and Alex, and Vanessa would read these tales during her commute between Manhattan and the Bronx. Years later, Vanessa moved and she found print-outs of the stories in an old purse, and gave them back to me. I was reminded how much fun I had with these characters, so I took them back out and began playing with them at the end of 2008. So that’s when I “officially” became an author.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of Spellbound? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

After a rough couple of years, Emma Conner moves to New York to live with her aunt and start over at a new school, a posh Upper East Side prep school. As she’s learning to navigate the somewhat shark-infested waters, she finds herself drawn to a classmate, troublemaker Brendan Salinger — and strange things start happening. Streetlamps explode over her head. She has disturbing dreams of herself in another time, and her late brother appears to warn her to stay away from him — or else.

About the concept, I had the characters already, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with them. So, I just started writing with a rough idea of what I wanted to do. I don’t really write with an outline; I kind of let the characters do what they want to do and see where it goes. I knew I wanted to do something paranormal since personally, I’m drawn to that kind of entertainment. And I knew I wanted a romance, since I was a newlywed and my head was filled with hearts and flowers and lollipops at the time. I’ve always been interested in past lives and reincarnation. So I just kind of put that all together.

Do you think kids and teens are especially interested in fantasy these days?

With fantasy, there’s all this possibility and unpredictability. Anything can happen — and anything usually does. It’s fun and unlimited and I think that’s attractive to teens and adults.

Can you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication? What does a typical writing day look like?

Spellbound, originally, was a stand-alone book — writing a sequel came later. So, after I got my deal, I tweaked things in the first book to set up a sequel. I have a day job, so I don’t start writing in this capacity until night. I start writing around 8 or 9 p.m., and write until about 2 a.m. I’m a better writer at night; I’ve always been that way. On Fridays and Saturdays, I stay up until about 6 a.m., then sleep until noon, then it’s back to writing. There’s so much that inspires me; for this book, I drew heavily on my own teen experiences — and they’re ones that I think, for the most part, are pretty universal. The mean girls who you persecute you for no reason. The all-consuming crushes. Feeling awkward and out of place.

When I write, I write with my headphones on, so music plays a big part in my writing. It’s a huge influence, actually. As I write, I listen to songs that resonated with me in high school — it helps put me back in the headspace of being a teen — and some more current stuff, things I think my characters would like.

What has your path to publication been like?

My media background highlighted the importance of social media, and I’m really active on Twitter and Facebook. I think I’ve been pretty lucky — the YA community is really supportive, smart and dedicated community, and I’ve gotten to know a fair number of bloggers through Twitter.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Keep writing. It’s the best advice I’ve gotten, and the advice I’ve give an aspiring author. Even if you don’t have an idea for a novel, start a blog. Start a Twitter feed. Just stay active.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

When I was a really little kid, I loved the Little House books. As I got older, I was crazy about The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Twins. Then I went through phases: Agatha Christie, Stephen King. Now I’m reading Got Junk? by Tom Acox and Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise)?

Right now I’m writing the sequel to Spellbound, Spellcaster, which is due next year.

Thanks Cara! Can’t wait to read it!

Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Julie Sternberg

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On June - 3 - 2011

 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Julie SternbergNew School Grad Julie Sternberg visited our Middle Grade Children’s Literature class with Susan van Metre and discussed her fantastic book LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE, and we nabbed her for an interview. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn about her journey from our own program in the Writing for Children program at The New School to a published author.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer? What did you do before you “officially” became a writer. What made you want to be a writer? Do you write fulltime now?

For ages, because of a silly but deep-seated insecurity, I assumed I couldn’t write fiction.  I read fiction whenever I could, but I never, ever wrote it.  I became a lawyer instead.  Eventually I had less and less time for reading and more and more doubts about whether I wanted to spend my life as an attorney.  One afternoon I passed a flyer for a writing workshop taught by the wonderful children’s book author Amy Hest.  I started writing for her class, and now I write full-time.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE tells the story of eight-year-old Eleanor, who must say goodbye to her longtime, beloved babysitter, Bibi.  Bibi moves to Florida to take care of her ailing father.  Eleanor must adjust to days without Bibi, to a new babysitter who is nothing like Bibi, and to the start of third grade.  Ultimately, PICKLE JUICE is about making one’s way through a difficult time.  It was inspired by life:  I have two daughters, and their beloved babysitter moved away.

What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write? Where does your inspiration come from? I know you have little ones, how do you balance mom-time and work-time?

I typically drop my daughters at school, return home, and write until it’s time to pick them up.  I sometimes write in the early morning hours before my girls wake up, particularly on days when they don’t have school.  I never write at night.  I am useless at night.

little girl pickle Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Julie SternbergWhat has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

I’ve been very, very lucky.  My editor, Tamar Brazis at Abrams Books, loved the PICKLE JUICE story from the start, though I initially wrote it in a different format.  We went through revisions together, but I knew relatively quickly that it would be published.  The most surprising part of the writing process has been how committed I am to pursuing it.  If only I’d realized earlier!  Law school is tiring, and sometimes tiresome, and expensive.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

I’ve been the beneficiary of so much good advice.  For instance:

(1) Never be reluctant to throw pages away.  Even if those pages seemed perfect initially, if your story has evolved and they’re not working anymore, toss them.

(2) Don’t let an idea or device get in the way of a good story, with heart.  If you do, at the end of the day, your writing might be clever but it won’t resonate.

(3) If any part of your story doesn’t feel simple and real, it’s not working.  Simplify.  That goes for fantasy, too–it should feel simple and real within the rules of the world you’ve created.

(4) Don’t get too hung up on any prescriptions. Different processes work for different writers.  Figure out what’s useful to you and disregard everything else.

(5) Get feedback, but not too much and only from the right people.  Find folks whose advice is consistently useful–two or three is plenty–and stick with them.  Too many readers can be debilitating.

 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Julie SternbergWhat was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

Some favorites from when I was a kid include ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, by Scott O’Dell; DICEY’S SONG, by Cynthia Voigt; and THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I recently finished Jonathan Stroud’s HEROES OF THE VALLEY, an older middle-grade fantasy that I highly recommend.  His Bartimaeus books, particularly THE AMULET OF SAMARKIND and THE RING OF SOLOMON, are also terrific.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m working on another middle-grade novel, this one about sisters.  I’m looking forward to summer!

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

A small group of folks whose advice I trust is useful to me.  Larger groups, with too many conflicting voices, are not.

girl in bed 300x232 Debut Author Interview: New School Grad Julie SternbergHow did The New School Writing for Children program help you? What did you get out of the program?

I’m a better writer because of the MFA program, and I’m far more immersed in the world of children’s book publishing than I ever would have been without it.  The teachers are terrific and remain supportive to this day; I’m still in a writing group with a couple of my classmates; and another classmate, Marirosa Mia Garcia, and I write a blog recommending books for kids and teens (www.pleasedontreadthisbook.com).  I just wish I could still take some of the MFA classes!  I miss them.

familiars 193x300 Debut Author Q&A: Endcap Entertainments Andrew Jacobson and Adam Epstein On The FamiliarsIf you think breaking into book publishing is hard, you should try screenwriting. And actually, writers Andrew Jacobson and Adam Jay Epstein, authors of the new middle grade series The Familiars, did just that. The pair hit Hollywood nearly a decade ago and made a name for themselves with comedy films like Not Another Teen Movie. But when they first came with the concept for The Familiars, they saw it as a book — first, at least. The film version is due to hit theaters in 2014. In the meantime, we caught up with the L.A.-based pals to talk collaborations, concepting and the best writing advice they ever got (or gave). Plus, we got the inside scoop on their new literary development company, Endcap Entertainment, and how you can submit!

What were you guys doing before you “officially” became writers?

Adam: I grew up in Great Neck, NY and attended Wesleyan University in Middletown CT. Although I always loved writing and stories, I didn’t realize that it was a career I would pursue until my junior year in college. After moving to Los Angeles, I temped and had day jobs while writing in my free time. As a kid, I would make up stories in my head and now I enjoy being able to share them with children and adults everywhere.

Andrew: I grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Los Angeles to write about ten years ago. I met Adam in a parking garage and we started writing together. I worked briefly as an assistant at a Hollywood talent agency while writing with Adam in the evenings at coffee shops (oft times closing the place down). I always loved playing with action figures as a kid and coming up with elaborate stories for them. Writing became an extension of that and now I am fortunate enough to do it full time.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of The Familiars? How did you come up with the concept for the series?

Andrew and Adam: The Familiars is our debut novel. It was published by Harper Collins Childrens and released last September. Book two in the series, The Familiars: Secrets of the Crown, will be released on September 6th, 2011. Back in 2008, when we hatched the idea for The Familiars, it all started with Adam asking Andrew, “Do you know what a familiar is?” Andrew said he didn’t. Adam explained, “A familiar is the animal companion to a witch or wizard, like Hedwig in Harry Potter.” Andrew immediately took to the idea. We loved that familiars were always in the background, doing very little. What if we told a story where the familiars were front and center? And they were the ones going on the adventure.

Adam’s simple question quickly led to the creation of Vastia and all the magical animals inhabiting it. Our three main characters are an orphan alley cat named Aldwyn, who is mistaken for being a young boy wizard’s familiar; Skylar, a know-it-all blue jay with the ability to cast magical illusions; and Gilbert, a bumbling tree frog who can see visions of the past, present, and future in puddles of water… sometimes. We didn’t have to look very far for our inspiration for Aldwyn. In fact, he was right in Adam’s backyard. There was a stray black-and-white alley cat named Ben, missing a chunk of his left ear, who visited there every day. The rest seemed to just flow effortlessly. The Familiars is targeted at middle readers, ages 8 to 12, but we really believe it will appeal to anyone who loves animals, magic, or fantasy. It takes inspiration from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and hopefully puts its own unique spin on the classic hero’s journey.

Andrew and Adam Headshot 300x200 Debut Author Q&A: Endcap Entertainments Andrew Jacobson and Adam Epstein On The FamiliarsCan you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication, especially doing series and working with a partner?

Andrew and Adam: One of the unique things about this book is that we co-authored it. The two of us literally sat in the same room for months and months (we pretty much put in banker’s hours, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday) writing every word, sentence, and paragraph together. Andrew is the typist (because he’s frankly a much faster typer), while Adam sits beside him, or across from him in a nice, comfy chair, or sometimes paces around. After our initial conversation about the idea, we loosely outlined the first few chapters and just dove in. Then after writing about 45 pages, we meticulously plotted out the rest of the story. Of course we discovered many details along the way, but we had a basic sense of the major plot points and where the first book would end. Neither one of us were English majors in college or had any book writing experience previously, but we’ve both read a lot, watched a lot, and lived inside our imaginations since we were little kids.

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

Andrew and Adam: We began writing screenplays together just out of college. Our first script sale would become the 2001 Sony film, Not Another Teen Movie. That led to years of steady film and television writing, on various features and the MTV Movie Awards (working with comedians ranging from Jimmy Fallon to Jack Black to Andy Samberg). Then, in 2008, we decided to write our first novel, The Familiars. It was picked up by Harper Collins in May of 2009, and optioned for film soon after. The journey from writing teen comedies to middle grade fantasy fiction has been quite a ride!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Andrew: Best advice I’ve ever gotten: Butt plus chair. Advice I’d give aspiring authors: Butt plus chair.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

Adam: I loved the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. That was the equivalent of middle grade fantasy when I was little. Now I am reading Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, which is just great.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

Andrew and Adam: We have recently completed book two of The Familiars, which will be out in September of 2011. And we have been concurrently adapting the screenplay for the 3D animated film, due in theaters in 2014!

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

Andrew and Adam: What is great about having a writing partner is that we have a permanent “bloc.” We are always there to help each other with advice and criticism. The constant encouragement is extremely needed in this tough creative business. So… yes. For writers without a partner… a bloc is critical. In fact, we are starting a literary development company to give new writers that protection and help that we get everyday.

Can you tell us a bit about the literary development company? What made you guys decide to start it? What are you guys looking for?

We started Endcap Entertainment to give writers something we never had when we started ten years ago: a creative mentor and support system. Trying to get access to the publishing, film, and television world is extremely challenging, and not knowing the needed gatekeepers to break into these industries can keep out talented authors worthy of success. Moreover, when a writer starts out, they often don’t know what is a commercially viable idea; and while it may seem crass to think in those terms, to get published in these franchise/series/transmedia times, having the right idea is crucial to launch yourself.

The way the company works is simple. We are looking for writers with a solid sample under their belt who might benefit from working in a collaborative partnership on a commercial idea that we provide. If we are excited by a writer’s work and they agree to collaborate with us, we will find the best idea suited for that writer and begin an outlining process together. Once that is agreed upon, the writer will take a crack at a few chapters and we will go back and forth until they are ready. Then, with a synopsis for the remaining chapters, we will submit to publishers. In success, we will try to sell the work to ancillary markets such as film and television as well.

We’re looking for authors excited to work in the YA/MG space. Everything from Alex Rider to The DUFF. Samples can be emailed to endcapentertainment@gmail.com.


Photos: HarperCollins; Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson

Author Interview: Jen Calonita Finds ‘There’s No Place Like Home’

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On February - 28 - 2011

jen calonita.book  200x300 Author Interview: Jen Calonita Finds Theres No Place Like HomeI first met Jen Calonita when we were both working at Teen People magazine in New York City. Jen’s experiences with the teen celebs she interviewed at the magazine became the basis of her hit Secrets of My Hollywood Life series. And that was just the first of many successful teen tomes she’s penned. Now, she’s wrapping up Secrets with the sixth and final book in the series, There’s No Place Like Home. We caught up with Jen to chat about writing series, teens fascination with celebrity culture, and working from home with kids — a scenario this writer mama can certainly relate to!

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t till about seven years ago that I started thinking about becoming an author. Before that I worked as an entertainment magazine editor and spent my days interviewing teen stars. After a while, I started to wonder what it would be like to write about the things these stars experienced and their intricate world. It’s hard enough to be a teen. Being a teen in the glare of the media spotlight is scary! Kaitlin Burke, my Secrets of My Hollywood Life character, was born from my experiences interviewing stars as young as she is.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of There’s No Place Like Home? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

This is the final Secrets novel and I’m very proud of the way the series ends. I wanted to make sure the fans got everything they could possibly want from this story so I gave Kaitlin the send-off she deserves. Once and for all, she will decide whether she wants to be a full-blown actress or whether she’s going to give everything up and go to college — or whether she’s going to attempt to try to do both! It’s the only story in the series that has a fantastical element to it, and I really enjoyed delving into that type of story. It’s something I’d like to explore more in a new book in the future.

Can you talk a bit about writing stand-alones versus series?

Secrets was always meant to be a series. Reality Check and Sleepaway Girls were always meant to be stand-alones. I think SG could be a series though, and girls are always asking me to write a sequel (which I hope to someday do). As for Secrets, what’s fun about a series is having the chance to really watch a character grow and change over a long period of time. I liked having the opportunity to tell many stories for Kaitlin and put her in all kinds of Hollywood situations.

Do you think kids and teens are especially interested in celebrity these days? What is it about celebrity culture that resonates so strongly with your audience?

I think society as a whole is obsessed with celebrity culture and pseudo-celebs. All these reality stars think they are celebrities, and maybe they are, but there are only a few true movie stars out there these days and those are the ones who I really admire — the ones who give back and have a body of work you really enjoy. I think with my audience, all of us wonder what it would be like to have that much fame at such a young age. How do you handle it without it overwhelming you? There are so many young stars that I interviewed over the years that I’ve seen grow up gracefully. There are also a few that haven’t! There’s so much temptation for them out there, but so much glory to be had as well for those who care about the work they do and have a good head on their shoulders. That’s what I wanted for Kaitlin, realistic or not. Her family might be obsessed with celebrity, but she’s always been wary of it, like I have. She can be wishy-washy, and strong-willed at times, but that’s how I was as a teen too. I think celebrity or non-celebrity, all teens have the same issues and that’s what I really wanted to come across in the Secrets novels.

jen101010 Author Interview: Jen Calonita Finds Theres No Place Like HomeCan you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication, especially doing series? What does a typical writing day look like?

I write from my home office and I have a dedicated schedule — as if I left my house to go to work everyday. My oldest is in kindergarten so I write during school hours so that I have time for the boys later in the day during the witching hours! I know I’m so fortunate to work from home and be there to take them to school and do homework with them. It’s been a nice balance. I have a sitter come in to be with my little one and I’m able to have lunch with him, which is so nice as well — well, when he’s not flinging food!

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

I think having a journalism background helped a ton. I really enjoy the revision process because I’m so used to doing it with magazine articles! When you write for magazines, sometimes ten people touch your article before it goes to print. There are a ton of cooks in the kitchen so everyone has an opinion and you get very used to making changes, cutting words to fit, and reworking a story. Doing those things is an important element to writing a novel. I actually like working on the second draft of a book more than the first. I like notes! I like to hear how a story can be improved and where I can finesse details. I think when you’re writing, you get very attached to a story and sometimes you can’t see the flaws. Having an editor—another set of eyes—is crucial to improving your work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Spend a day with each of your main characters. Elizabeth Eulberg said that to me once and I think it’s a great concept. When you take the time to figure out every detail about your character, it becomes easier to empathize with them and know how they will act in a situation. So now when I start working on a book, I take the main characters with me for the day — to Starbucks (what would they order?), to the grocery store (vegan? Junk food lover?) and to the gym (would they sneak out of gym class and hang out at the juice bar or take two spin classes in a row?)

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

I loved the Sweet Valley High books! I used to drive my parents crazy because I could read one in a single afternoon on the beach and then I’d be begging to go back to the bookstore! I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and it was truly the best book I read in the last ten years. I just loved the friendship between the three main characters and found the story so inspiring. I could not put it down. I recommend it to everyone.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m working on the first book in my new teen series, Belles, which will be out next spring. It’s about two completely opposite cousins who are forced to live under the same roof and co-exist in a privileged southern world. I’m really enjoying these new characters and a new world to dig into. This is the first of a four-book story so I’m also excited about having a long story-arc, like I had with Secrets.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

To be honest, I haven’t found a “bloc,” but I think it would be helpful. I do have a writer support system though and love to bounce ideas or talk “shop” with other authors like Sara Shepard, Elizabeth Eulberg, Sarah Mylnowski, and Kieran Scott. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone in the whole process.

Author photo by Rick Delucia; Book Image via Poppy


african history month 300x200 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceWhen I was growing up, I used to think every character in a book was white. If a character wasn’t described explicitly my mind drew a picture of them and they were almost always white. I still do this. It is an automatic thing that happens when I read.

My mother once told me that when I was in elementary school I used to always ask her why everyone in the books I was reading was white. Did only white people populate fiction (especially fantasy stories)?

So I wondered if I was alone and polled a fantastic bunch of black authors and kidlit bloggers to see how they felt.

As a young reader/teen reader, did you imagine the people in books as white? When did you first encounter a black teen or child  in a book? What was that experience like? Did you have a different connection with the text? Do you remember the first text you encountered with brown folks in it?

 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceEbony Joy Wilkins, author of Sell Out, answered:

“I also remember assuming every character I read about was white. I’m not even sure I can explain that at this point in my life, other than to assume I just wasn’t exposed to enough literature with African American central characters.  I can’t pinpoint the exact text when I first encountered brown folks, but I’m pretty sure the book was read in celebration of an MLK jr. day ceremony or for Black History Month. Although I cannot remember the specific text, I do remember the feelings I had of empowerment and validation after seeing brown folks like me on the page. I wish those feelings for all readers of color.”

Dia Reeves, author of Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry, says:

“The first book I read like that was Bizou by Norma Klein, which I read in elementary school. The main character was biracial and French, which I thought was so cool. Looking back, that’s probably why Hanna from Bleeding Violet is so exotic–Bizou made a powerful impression on me. Because, like you, I also thought that all characters in books were white, unless otherwise stated. Sad, but true.”

Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, Sparrow, and Lucy the Giant, says:

 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative Experience

“Hmm.  I understand what you are saying.  I think you saw everyone as white because if a character is white, the author tends to just describe them as a person.  Race is only mentioned when it’s non-caucasian, ie. “A tall man and a short black woman entered the store.”  I suppose the very first book I read with a black character is one of two picture books—Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day or Don Freeman’s Corduroy.  In YA books, it gets a bit tougher, especially at my age because YA was relatively new in the 70’s and 80’s, and much of the stuff I read was written in the 60s.  Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, that sort of thing.  Sometimes there were Latino migrant workers as part of a mystery story, but not necessarily in the lead.  Novels with black protagonists tended to be about being black — Richard Wright’s Native Son was assigned reading in my high school.  Pretty intense reading and definitely not an escapist piece of entertainment!  Of course, at the time I was more into fantasy and SF, so there were all sorts of races and species involved.  Maybe that’s why the shortage of African American characters didn’t bother me.  I was just as happy imagining I was Misty of Chincoteague as I was daydreaming about being Peter Pan’s Wendy, Nancy Drew or Uhura.  My parents raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, so I didn’t feel limited by what I read.  Race was incidental.

These days, when books have trailers and get turned into movies left and right, I think it’s important to take a more worldly view of race.  Also, it’s discussed a lot more.  If a kid feels alienated because the books they read don’t reflect their own lives, then we should consider writing some that does.  Since I was such a big SF/Fantasy/Fairytale nerd growing up and nothing I read reflected the real world, I was more bothered by characters without parents.  It seemed to me I could never have an adventure until I discovered I was adopted.  Kids with their own families never turn out to be heroes in novels.  I understand the fairy tale paradigm now—the child being forced into self-sufficiency as a means of growing up.  But at the time, particularly when I was in elementary school, I would day dream about being an orphan. Only then (or so I thought) could my life really get interesting!”

Wendy Raven McNair, author of Awake and Asleep, says:

 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative Experience

“I don’t remember how old I was but I was very young (probably in Kindergarten) when I came across Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. I really connected to that story but as a child if you had asked me why, I probably would’ve said because it was about snow and I liked the pictures. I would’ve been oblivious to the fact that a main black character in a children’s book was rare. I grew up in Houston, Texas which is notorious for its snow-less winters and as a young child I felt cheated by this. So The Snowy Day gave me a taste of the frozen wonderland I dreamed of and the melancholy tone of the story appealed to me as a melancholy child. I also remember enjoying Keats’ Whistle for Willie and Goggles but not nearly as much as The Snowy Day.

After that, I don’t remember reading another book with black characters until The Color Purple by Alice Walker and I loved that book. I was a college student so that was my earliest “teen” experience and The Snowy Day was my “young reader” experience. That’s shocking to me now but when I was younger, I wasn’t as observant, so I don’t remember questioning the absence of black characters in the books I read. However, I’d be hard pressed to remember many of the books I read as a child even though I was a voracious reader. I had an active imagination and enjoyed daydreaming of my own made up stories which were always populated by black people so maybe that’s why I never noticed their absence in books. So what’s significant in my experience is that even though I read a ton of books without black characters, the stories I remember most clearly are the few that did have black characters. I’ve tried to make sure my daughter has a variety of books but finding variety within black titles has still been very challenging.”

Nathalie Mvondo, blogger at Multiculturalism Rocks, says:

“That first question demoralized me. As a young reader, I don’t ever recall encountering a black teen (emphasis on teen) in a book. Ever. It’s disheartening, and this is coming from someone who also lived in Africa in the 80s, so you’d expect that books with teenagers from my culture would have been available there. That said, I encountered black children, i.e. three characters while growing up in Cameroon, in Central Africa. One was Kouakou, the main character of local comic book, widely popular even outside our borders. In my memories Kouakou was around 7 years old. Its adventures were seasonal and published in French. The two other characters were part of my grammar and vocabulary book throughout elementary school, and published by the French publisher Hachette. We followed and grew up with Mamadou and Bineta while learning about adjectives and irregular verbs. The fact they looked like us, lived our lives and had a variety of things happen to them, made most of us (students) read the book entirely before the end of the school year.

Slice of Cherry 204x300 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceAll the characters in the books I read in my preteens and teenage years were Caucasians, and many were adults (think Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, etc…). Chester Hines’ books are an exception (thanks to the teacher who added him in our reading list), but the characters were adults. I only got exposed to a more diverse cast when I read some comic books such as Marvel or DC, with characters like Storm and theBlack Panther, but again: They’re adults. Some French comic books provided a variety as well with Asian or Native Indian characters, but from what I remember the stories were never set in the present. There were either taking place in another century or they were science-fiction and fantasy.

Folktales also appeared as the best source for finding culturally diverse characters: There you got people from over the world (Africa, Asia, South America)… conversing with speaking birds, snakes and lions. Outside of that realm, there were no brown teenage spy, wannabe doctor or else, no light readings of the sort. The first texts I encountered with Black Folks seemed all to be about slavery, except for the aforementioned Cameroonian folktales. Reading about the history of slavery, reading Roots and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more classics in the same vein is important, but that is not all you can feed a brown child. Our identity is not limited to that part of our history, and when teenagers think of their future, that is not the first thing that comes to mind in terms of career path (obviously). A kid cannot only see a Black person portrayed in chains in books.

The first time I read a book with teenage brown characters was as an adult, after moving here, in the United States and working as a Children’s bookseller years ago. Marvel and DC comics were available there, but I found out about authors like Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Thomas or Jacqueline Woodson only after moving here. I The emotion that overwhelmed me was the same as when I was kid wondering where all the black dolls were. I will never forget the day I held my black baby. Every time I come across a book featuring a great story and a diverse cast, I’m excited and just can’t wait to share it with others, to put it in a reader’s hand and say, “Here it is. Enjoy.” hope that publishers consider the foreign market a bit more.”

 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceNick Burd, author The Vast Fields of Ordinary, says:

“Oh, God. I really can’t remember the first time I encountered a black teen in a book. I know I read books with black characters as a kid, but I have no idea what they were right now. As a teenager I was always more interested in why there were no gay characters in books. I finally found Edmund White and Bret Easton Ellis toward the end of my high school career and that was a very transformative moment for me as a writer and a reader. And really just as a human being as well.”

Crystal Allen, author of How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, says:

“My first encounter was a book entitled Manchild In the Promise Land by Claude Brown.  Since I wasn’t an avid reader, I don’t even remember who gave me the book, but I know I didn’t get it out of a library. I do remember it was paperbacked with several dog-eared pages, a missing cover and the book was very thick!  I was intimidated at first, but once I got started, this book changed my world from black and white to color in a matter of moments!  Even though I wasn’t raised on the streets of New York, but on a farm in Indiana, I could relate to Sonny, the main character in this book, and I didn’t know why.  Now that I look back, I think that book had been passed around so much that it lost its cover and the dog-eared pages represented bookmarks from different people.  What a tribute to Mr. Brown!”

lamars bad prank won 200 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceKaren Strong, blogger/writer, software geek living in Atlanta and working on a YA paranormal suspense novel, says:

“My mother was an avid reader so I followed in her footsteps. We spent many days at the library until it closed and I would go home with stacks and stacks of books and get lost in the pages. Most of the characters didn’t look like me and although I kept reading tons of books, a thought was always at the back of my mind, “Do brown girls like me live in pages?”

It wasn’t until I traded in my pink library card for my “big girl” beige one that I found The Friends by Rosa Guy that I felt a true connection. This book was so different from all the others I had read: This story was about a brown teen girl. I read the book several times and even bought copies for my cousins. I was just so excited to read about a girl who looked like me on the printed page. I soon found other books but unfortunately not many more as a teen.

Teens today have a lot more choices then I did growing up. But there is room for so much more. More “slice of life”, more mystery, more romance, more science fiction and fantasy. The landscape for readers of color is vast and there is room for more books that break the mold of the tried and true storylines.

I will always remember my first experience reading a YA novel featuring a POC character because it also sparked something inside of me: If Rosa Guy could write about brown teen girls, maybe I could too.”

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Eighth-Grade Superzero, said:

8thGradeSuper RESIZED 198x300 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative Experience“I think the books like Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, Black Folktales, etc. were among the first I read on my own. I loved Langston Hughes.  I *adored* Maya Angelou and Malcolm X; Bette Greene, Mildred Taylor…Virginia Hamilton, Rosa Guy, Walter Dean Myers…In high school,  Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin left me laughing, open-mouthed or tight-lipped.  (Or all three.) I connected with Chinua Achebe and the other African Writers Series authors’ works in a wonderful way.  I was fortunate to have parents who actively sought out multicultural literature, from many cultures and countries.  Books in our home were about people living all over the world.  I would often stumble across offensive imagery and racist depictions, but learned early on not to ignore them, but to see them as they were and think critically about the culture that produces those things. There also wasn’t a whole lot of variety in the U.S. stories — often, in contemporary or historical fiction, their whole story was struggle without much beauty. I know that even then I craved variety, to see Black and Brown characters in different worlds, in other worlds.”

Ari, blogger at BlackTeensRead2 and teen student, says:

“What a coincidence this question is because I recently started thinking about this very topic! I don’t remember the EXACT first black teen I ever encountered but I do remember marveling over the fact. I discovered both the It Chicks series by Tia Williams and the Drama High series by L. Divine in 8th grade. I had gone through most of my life only reading historical fiction about white people. When I finally found Christopher Paul Curtis, it was a miracle. That was middle school and he wrote historical fiction. Amazing historical fiction to be sure, but historical fiction nevertheless.  Besides middle grade historical fiction, I read a lot of middle grade contemporary and back when I was growing up you can forget finding a middle grade book that was not” issues heavy” about kids of color just hanging out, solving mysteries, falling-in-like/developing a crush, dealing with friend drama, etc. Nope obviously kids of color didn’t have fun. I honestly cannot recall a single book with main characters of color between the ages of 9-12 that I read that was not historical fiction. How sad is that?

So you can imagine my reaction when I finally found books featuring teens of color. First, I distinctly remember just starting in amazement (I was at the library) then I eagerly grabbed it, in case anyone else tried to take it. Then I had to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. You see in the past I had thought books were about characters of color but it turned out the books really just featured cover models who were quite tan. Some of the stories were really good anyway, some not so good. Regardless, it was rather crushing to find out that the main character was actually not at least half something of color.

bleeding violet 199x300 Black History Month Round Up Question: The Color of Universal Narrative ExperienceMost girls read The Clique and Gossip Girl series. Yes the Clique series had a Latina character, Alicia and Gossip Girl briefly mentions some girl who was biracial (Isabel I think?), but neither of those girls received much attention in the books (Full Disclaimer: I quit with the Clique books right before Alicia apparently got a storyline but I faithfully read the Gossip Girl books until we all graduated and went our separate ways). But the It Chicks series, the Drama High series and (I later discovered) the Hotlanta series and the Del Rio Bay Clique series were my own versions of Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private, It Girl, etc. FINALLY I had found guilty pleasure reads about bratty upperclass black kids. Even better not all the teens were brats, but the books were pure fun. No one was running away from an evil slave master, no parents were abusing their kids, instead Jayd (Drama High) had to deal with haters, Sydney & Lauren (Hotlanta) had some serious family secret drama going on and Tangie (It Chicks) was KILLING it at her NYC performing arts school. All black main characters, non “issue” books. I was terrified and excited by high school so reading about these teenage girls’ adventures was an eye opening experience to say the least. You could say I was overly prepared (I definitely expected some mean girls to be prowling the halls of high school and desperately worked on some witty comebacks like my favorite main characters. Wouldn’t you know it; there aren’t a lot of mean girls at my school? And my comebacks really weren’t that good? Heh).

If I’m completely honest with myself, I was a lot more lenient towards books with main characters of color. When I go back and re-read certain books (doesn’t apply to any of the above books because I have fond memories of them regardless of quality) that I really liked, I can’t believe I read them. Especially if I end up reviewing them, I can be way more critical than I ever would have been had I not started blogging and discovered more books about people of color. I put up with some poor writing, ridiculous main characters and slow moving plots, all out of desperation. What if this was it? When would I finally read all the books about black teenagers in my library and run out? Then what would I do? I would have nightmares about this fact (erm ok not nightmares but it was BAD. For awhile I would constantly check out the same books one week, 8 new ones the next week and then only check out my old favorites the next week, it was a never ending cycle).

Don’t even get me started on the fact that I didn’t find any books with Latina/Asian/Native American main characters until after I started blogging in high school. But we’ll save that for Hispanic/Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American heritage months. The golden era of diverse middle grade literature is upon us. I figure it started in 2008. My middle grade years were roughly 2005-2008 and I am SO ENVIOUS of the more diverse reads coming out now and back in 2010. If I had found Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s Eighth Grade Superzero I would’ve died from happiness.”

Photo Credit: Kevin Fell at HOZA

lamars bad prank won 200 Debut Author Interview: Crystal Allen Talks About Her Humorous Middle Grade Debut!I have the pleasure of being part of an online group called ACAIC (The Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color) for the past few years where I have conversed with many different authors, including Crystal Allen. Her humorous book, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy, answers the cries of librarians, parents, and teachers for boys books. And it is out TODAY!

We caught up with the debut author of color to discuss her road to publication, her process, and the life of a debut author.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I’m a wife, mother of two young men, and a writer, living in Texas. I love hanging out with my family and cooking. When my sons were much younger, I wrote short stories using them as main characters,  just to get them to do their chores and homework. I enjoyed creating the stories so much that I began searching the internet for conferences and organizations centered around writing for children. Besides being a wife and mother, I’d worked for stock brokers, law firms, even owned a word processing company. Writing for my sons really made me think about it. Before that, I had no desire. Yes, I write full-time.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy?

Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest most spectacular bowler ever at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But he doesn’t have game – not like his older brother Xavier the Basketball Savior. And certainly not like his best friend “Spanish fly guy” Sergio. So Lamar vows to spend the summer changing his image from dud to stud by finding a way to make money and snag a super fine Honey. When a crafty teenage thug invites Lamar to use his bowling skills to hustle, he seizes the opportunity. As his judgment blurs, Lamar makes an irreversible error, damaging every relationship in his life. Now, he must figure out how to mend those broken ties, no matter what it will cost him.

How did you come up with the concept for the book?

How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy actually began as a ghost writing possibility. I didn’t get the job, but I loved my characters and wanted to do something with them. At that time, it was a chapter book, written in third person, with multi-cultural characters. One day, while watching a CSI Las Vegas episode, a teenage, African-American boy began walking around inside my head like he owned the place!  He was struttin’ like some hot shot! At that moment, I honestly thought I might need some medical intervention!

But soon, the mental scenery changed as this boy took me to a bowling alley. Even though this was going on in my head, the vivid smells of hot dogs and pizza, the sounds of blaring music and kids bowling made it clear who was strutting around my brain. I can’t tell you much about that CSI episode, but I can tell you that moment switched my story from third-person to first and changed everything for Lamar and me.

 Debut Author Interview: Crystal Allen Talks About Her Humorous Middle Grade Debut!What’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write?Where does your inspiration come from?

I try to write at least four to six hours per day.  Even if I’m writing something that has nothing to do with my Work-In-Progress, I’ll still put in the time. I don’t have a typical writing day.  I wish I did! In life, so many things “pop up” that need to be handled and my home life takes precedence over my writing life. So my writing day can be split in halves, quarters, and sometimes even smaller intervals!

I’m a morning person. I have written in the evening, but I find my thoughts flow smoother in the a.m. When I’m at home, I have a writing room and it’s perfect for me. My husband travels a lot and many times I get to go with him. But my most favorite place to write, is on a cruise ship. I don’t get to cruise as often as I’d like, but there’s just something about being on the water that really helps my creativity.

I’m actually inspired by my characters. I try to let them write their own story through me. It’s a hard process to learn, but the inspiration level is dead red!

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

I attended numerous conferences, workshops, writer boot camps, seminars, group discussions, you name it. Plus, I had a circle of established writers and professionals in the publishing business who gave me continuous support. I wrote and revised and revised again. I sent my work to proofers, editing services, and joined a critique group. Even after signing with my agent, Jen Rofé with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, I went through lots of revisions before Jen and I believed  my manuscript was ready for submission to the publishing houses. How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy ended up in auction! It’s been long, but one of the most satisfying learning adventures I’ve ever experienced.

The most surprising, almost scary realization of the writing process for me was when I thought I’d heard Lamar breathe. I’d revised many times to make him stronger and allowed his personality to drive the story.  In the final days of revision, I got a visual of Lamar, in my head, inhaling and exhaling. I’d brought his story to life and, as a writer, it was the most gratifying moment ever.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Writing Advice Received: Write what you know.

Writing Advice Bestowed: Never give up.  Write what you know.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

Honestly, I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. Reading wasn’t something introduced to me as “fun.” Reading was synonymous with school assignments and those books were usually something I didn’t want to read. So I grew up believing the library was full of books I didn’t want to read. (Wiping eyes with tissues.)

If I had known back then how wonderful reading is, and that there were so many books I would have totally enjoyed reading, I wouldn’t be playing so much “catch up”  on my reading now!

Dork Diaries – Tales from a Not So Fabulous Life by Rachel Renée Russell (almost finished.  Going to pick up the second one, soon!)

Haunted by Joy Preble

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m working on a story where my main character is a very humorous girl. I hope to finish it soon!

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

Absolutely. I try to surround myself with two groups of people; one group is just like me and the other group is much smarter than I am.

If it had not been for my critique partners, my debut novel would not be nearly as strong as it is now. The writing community is a must for any aspiring and seasoned author. Like with any occupation, you must know your craft, what’s already out there, and what’s available to help you produce the best work possible.

Photo Credit: Author’s Website, BlackTeensRead Blog

pixel Debut Author Interview: Crystal Allen Talks About Her Humorous Middle Grade Debut!

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