Cynthia has taught a number of writing workshops and is currently a member of the faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her amazing website was named one of the top 10 Writer Websites by Writer's Digest and an American Library Association (ALA) Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.
Now, without further ado, here is the interview:
Cynthia, how did you become a TeachingAuthor?
Kathi Appelt drafted me. She's my original children's writing teacher, and I benefited greatly from taking private classes at her family ranch. From there, she asked me to guest speak at another event and then to join her in teaching a workshop. Over time, I began leading workshops, both for writing groups and out of my own home (for advanced/published participants) with my very cute husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith. In 2005, I joined the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
What's a common problem/question that your writing students have and how do you address it?
Of late, I've been working with especially strong students. But for both beginners and the more advanced, I'd say that "talking heads"--long sessions of character dialogue without the speaker being physically grounded in the scene--are a common pitfall.
Don't get me wrong. There's a time to let the dialogue flow without grounding or even attribution, such as in moments of high intensity when the reader knows the characters and their voices so well that anything more would be extraneous. But for the most part, it's helpful to be able to visualize our characters in a scene. Sometimes a beat is enough: She waved. He clenched his fist.
Sometimes, by showing a character, say, cook a meal or fix a car, we reveal more about them in a way that informs the story to come.
What I typically suggest to my students is to physically act out a scene. Literally step into the moment and movement(s). Or to perhaps sketch out a map of the town or bedroom, so that it's easier for them to mentally move their cast around and describe that on the page.
Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
Write a scene from the point of view of the antagonist. (This often works best if the antagonist isn't a force of nature or Fate, but it can be surprisingly useful in cases of the latter, too--especially in terms of revealing theme.)
Your new book, Blessed, is the third in a series of paranormal novels that began with Tantalize. Did you plan all along to write a series featuring these characters? If so, how did that affect your writing of Tantalize and Eternal?
I had hoped to write a series featuring the characters, if there was enough enthusiasm from readers and my publisher. But early on, I didn't count on it. So, I wrote Tantalize and Eternal the way I felt they needed to be written.
Were there plot threads I desperately wanted to continue? Yes. Definitely.
But if that didn't prove possible, I had brought both the internal and external arcs full circle, albeit with not quite as happy of endings as some might expect, given my particular optimistic take on life. (Readers, if you'd like to read more about Blessed, see this page on Cynthia's website.)
You write a wide range of fiction, from picture books to short stories to young adult novels. Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?
For the Tantalize series, I would suggest reading the books and discussing them along with the classics to which they pay tribute: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
Would you share an interesting behind-the-scenes story about one of your novels?
After selling my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), I set to work on what would become my first novel, Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). It had a previous incarnation, set in Chicago, as a rather horrid thematically clunky manuscript called "Two Wings to Fly," which I'd finally deleted and decided to try again from the ground up (so to speak).
I often think of myself as a "sense of place" writer, and this time I returned to my roots, setting the book in northeast Kansas where I spent most of my childhood, and drawing on memories of small towns around the greater Kansas City area. One of the three or so places that I drew on in creating the fictional town of Hannesburg, Kansas was my mother's hometown. I didn't use the particular geographic layout, with the exception of city hall, but a fair amount of local voice and flavor proved inspiring. Still, it's a big world, and I'd nodded to German-American towns in Michigan (where I'd attended law school), too. It never occurred to me that anyone would make the connection outside of perhaps my own family.
I took the manuscript to an SCBWI conference in Illinois, back when the legendary Esther Hershenhorn (now one of the TeachingAuthors) was serving as regional advisor. I don't remember if we read pages or if an excerpt of mine was read. But I do remember another attendee rushing to me and exclaiming, "Is that such-and-such, Missouri? My husband's family lives there. It sounds dead on."
I was flabbergasted. She was right.
Well, you must have done an exceptional job creating that town in your manuscript, Cynthia. Your readers will be pleased at the way your strong "sense of place" also comes through in the Tantalize series, which is set in Texas.
Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Cynthia. And congratulations again on the release of Blessed.
Readers, I invite you to watch the book's trailer below, and then enter our contest for a chance to win an autographed copy.
Now for the contest Entry Rules: to enter our drawing for an autographed copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith's Blessed:
1. You must post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you'd like to win a copy of the book. (Will you keep it for yourself or give it as a gift to a young reader?)
2. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].
3. You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, February 2, 2011. (The winner will be announced on Thursday, February 3.) Note: Winners automatically grant us permission to post their names here on our TeachingAuthors website.
4. You must have a mailing address in the United States.
For more information on our winner selection/notification process, see our official giveaway guidelines.
- For more on the release of Blessed (including additional opportunities to win copies) check out this post on the Cynsations blog.
- Many of us in the Kidlitosphere were disappointed when NBC's Today Show failed to interview this year's Newbery and Caldecott winners. I was quoted in a School Library Journal article about the Facebook campaign to get the interviews reinstated. If you're on Facebook, you can participate in the campaign here.
- Are you a picture book writer looking for a way to jump-start your writing? The training has already begun for the 2011 Picture Book Marathon, which starts Feb. 1. You can read about it here. And even if you're not participating in the marathon, check out their companion blog for some picture book-writing inspiration (By the way, they have the coolest logo.)
- The Amelia Bloomer Project has posted their 2011 list of recommended feminist literature for birth through 18 on their blog, with their "top ten" list posted here.
- The annual Kidlitosphere Comment Challenge wraps up today. A HUGE thank you to Lee Wind and Pam Coughlan for organizing this terrific event. I found some terrific new blogs to follow. And thank you to all the bloggers who posted here as part of the challenge. We're honored to have the TeachingAuthors logo as part of the Challenge masthead.