Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Here's a first!  The lovely Cynthia Leitich Smith agreed to do an interview here on WriterWriter, which left me flummoxed.  She runs the information-packed, source-of-MG/YA-life blog CYNSATIONS, and also recently inked a three-book deal with Candlewick Press.  So, what to do?  An SAT (Successful Author Talk) or a BOA (Blogger of Awesome)?  She gamely agreed to a BOASAT!  Yeah, that's right - say it fast and you sound drunk and confused about where you left your feathery scarf.

So hold on for a massive post that's so packed with great information you're going to have to bookmark it and take time out for a snack.


Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of TANTALIZE, ETERNAL and BLESSED, all Gothic fantasies for young adults. TANTALIZE was a Borders Original Voices selection, honored at the 2007 National Book Festival, named a Top Ten Pick on YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks list. ETERNAL was a YALSA Teens Top Ten nominee.  It debuted at #5 on the New York Times best-seller list and #13 on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list. BLESSED—another YALSA Teens Top Ten nominee—was cheered by The Horn Book Magazine as "A hearty meal for the thinking vampire reader."

Cynthia looks forward to the release of TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY, a graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle (August 2011).

You recently signed a three-book deal with Candlewick, to begin with SMOLDER.  What can you tell us?

SMOLDER is set in the TANTALIZE universe, but will feature new protagonists and a secondary character or three that appeared in the previous books. It’s the first novel I’ve written because readers kept begging for it. Humor, romance, and spooky-ness will remain key elements, though the story is driven more by a mystery of sorts.

Even though you’re an established author, did you get a rush when you heard the phrase “three-book deal?”

I have such a terrific agent—Ginger Knowlton. So much credit for that deal goes to her. What thrilled me most was that the contract was with Candlewick Press, which is an amazing company to publish with. My editor, Deborah Wayshak, is a genius. She asks the right questions, lets me run wild when I must, and knows how to keep my writer’s spirit sky high and my keyboard consistently productive.

More personally, I often speak, occasionally teach, and it helps me to have more than a year’s outlook on my upcoming manuscript deadlines. Especially with event coordinators sending invitations up to two years in advance, being able to thoughtfully plan my schedule is such a relief.

TANTALIZE, ETERNAL & BLESSED run an interesting route as “companion” novels as opposed to the typical trilogy style.  Did you know ahead of time that you were uniting the casts of the first two books with the third?  Or was this a stroke of serendipity?

My original concept—hope, prayer—was to write a book or four in response to Abraham Stoker’s classic DRACULA (1897). This was back in 2000, the date of the earliest draft, when fantasy was a tough sale, YA was supposedly “dead,” and people were telling me that teens were “too sophisticated” for books with monsters in them. Realism of the “grim lit” variety was all the rage.

(The longer you’re in it, the more amusing the industry is.)

With that thought in mind, I started with part one of Quincie’s story in TANTALIZE, which evolves around her family’s vampire-themed restaurant, Sanguini’s. I grounded that first novel in our every day, familiar world, populated by high school students, waitresses, wedding planners, and along the way, the occasional werearmadilo, werewolf, werecat or vampire.

With ETERNAL, I shifted focus the bigger guns—the undead royalty and the opposing role of guardian angels with regard to their mortal charges. As I wrote ETERNAL, I could readily imagine the castle chef Nora taking over Sanguini’s kitchen. I couldn’t imagine a better-fit guardian for Quincie right then than Zachary.

So, yes, and no. I didn’t have all four books plotted when the first one sold. But I did have a big-picture idea of the themes I wanted to explore and a springboard in Stoker’s novel. Going in, I also knew that, if my dream of multiple books came true, I didn’t want to be locked into only one character’s story and point of view. This gave me more room to write and opened up the possibility of more diversity—in terms of gender, ethnicity, mythology—among my protagonists.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m my own beast, so to speak. Early on (and, to a lesser extent, along the way), I do a lot of research. For example, writing shape-shifters meant looking at related existing books for YAs, grown-ups, going back to the classics, and then the stories that inspired them from cultures around the world. From there, I studied the respective animals and began to ask questions about their origins and how their bodies worked. I also enjoy pre-writing—seeking out models for my characters, literally shopping for their wardrobes, attending real-life open houses to determine where they live. I always have my camera in hand, and I jot notes in little notebooks, in napkins, even on my arm if it’s the only thing handy. Then I fiercely write a draft of the story—with a beginning, middle, and end. Once I’m done, I print it, read it, toss it, and delete the file. (This tends to freak out my students.)

From there, I start over, armed with a better understanding of my protagonist and his or her world. It’s very freeing. No one will ever see that discovery draft, so I can write, write, write. Once I’m done, I have so much more to say and faith that the best parts will rise again. Or better ones will.

After that, I write myself a long, conversational synopsis. I don’t have to do this with every book—with BLESSED for example, I already knew Quincie and her world.
But with more freshly imagined elements, it gives me an opportunity to start over on a firmer, more fully imagined foundation.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

About a year and a half, taking into account breaks in which the manuscript is in the editor’s capable hands. My most recent novel was the quickest—less than a year, but I put in long hours—working through the holidays (six hours on Christmas Day). Plus, I had previously written novels from the protagonists’ points of view.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I tend to have one larger project and one relatively one. A prose novel and a graphic novel. A prose novel and a picture book. A graphic novel and a short story. That said, I tend to pick one up when the other is resting, if only for a few days.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Fear of debtor’s prison springs to mind—kidding (mostly)!

I’ve always been a writer. In second grade, my “How I Spent My Summer” story was the one read over the school intercom system. I had my own column, “Dear Gabby” (giving advice to the troubled and lovelorn), in Mr. Rideout’s classroom newspaper. I went on to become editor of my junior high and high school newspapers.

I majored in news/editorial and public relations at the White School of Journalism at The University of Kansas. I went on to study law and teach legal writing and serve as a law journal editor at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. In my twenties, I worked at a half dozen small town newspapers and spent a summer covering high fashion and high-profile personalities for The Dallas Morning News.
I write. I read. I speak. I teach. I’m a play-to-your strengths kind of person.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

One—“Two Wings to Fly,” a precursor to RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001)—celebrating ten years in print in 2011! That early version was so boring.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Oh, sure. A handful of picture books. A few novels. One needed to be wholly re-configured. A couple of them weren’t right for the direction my career needed to go. Another I decided to revisit when I was a stronger, more capable writer (and I will).

I didn’t seriously—or, for the most part, at all—shop these manuscripts. They were just projects that helped show me where I needed to go from there.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

Disclaimer: This is the part where I will sound like a beast of the Cretaceous.

When I was a young, new writer, there were maybe five (?) agents who specialized in representing youth literature. Back then, a lot of people believed that children’s-YA agents didn’t need an agent. (This was pre-Potter.)

I met mine, the amazing Ginger Knowlton, through a listserv largely populated with well published authors. I’d been invited on by a mentor and contacted her after editors had begun to show a serious interest in my formal submissions and at conference critiques.

Ginger is the only person I considered contacting, and we’ve been working together happily for over a decade. She’s knowledgeable, elegant, whip-smart, a brilliant advocate, and from day one, she’s treated me like an A-list client.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

The whole process took about 24 hours. Sorry, guys! (It was 1998! The world was a different place.)

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Given that I’ve never written a query, I’m not the best person to ask. But I have assembled and provided much of the Web’s best insights on agents, queries, the author-agent relationship and more on the Goodies for Writers section of my website.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

I felt exposed. It occurred to me only then that perfect strangers would be reading my work without asking permission first. My husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith had to remind me that I’d already given my permission at about the same time I’d cashed the publisher’s check.

How much input do you have on cover art?

With my early Native American themed children’s books, I had some say on the art because I was the cultural expert on the team. With my more recent humorous picture books, I’ve mostly stood back and gratefully applauded. Candlewick did change the TANTALIZE cover, at my request, from more of an edgy, noir look to a softer one.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

How much of a difference it makes. Everyone judges a book by its cover.

How much of your own marketing do you?

I’m an enthusiastic ambassador of my books, though my publishers also are quite supportive. My focus is on taking part in the larger conversation. It’s not just about me and my own work.

My official author site has a formidable section of children’s-YA literature resources, which is updated monthly. At my Cynsations blog, on Facebook, and Twitter, I tend to talk about other folks’ new releases, writing as an art, publishing as a business, and a variety of related concerns.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I launched my author website in 1998, after I signed with my agent and sold my first book, JINGLE DANCER (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000). At the time, I wasn’t concerned with building a platform. In fact, I’d never heard the word “platform” used with that meaning.

This was pre-blogs, pre-MySpace, through I had over 1,000 people subscribed to a monthly e-newsletter featuring a couple of author interviews and a handful of links.

What I was originally trying to do was highlight the fact that Native people had not all died out 500 years earlier and shine a light on those terrific books—by a variety of authors—that showed us as citizens of indigenous nations with a past, a present, and a future.

The site grew organically, based on my interests and passions from there.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Sure, but I don’t wake up every morning and think, How do I build my leadership today? Instead, I say to myself, Wow, I belong in this magical world of books! I’m home.”

So you run an excellent blog for both writers and readers over at CYNSATIONS.  It is, in your own words “a source for conversations, publishing information, literacy and free speech advocacy, writer resources, inspiration, bookseller-librarian-teacher appreciation, news in children's and young adult literature, and author outreach.”  What made you decide to take this approach on your blog?

From high school through law school, I thought of myself foremost as a young journalist. It’s said, “bad news sells papers.” Maybe. But I long for more good news. I embrace it!

What I like to do most is celebrate.  Especially given the amount of rejection in the writing life, I wanted to offer consistently useful information and heartfelt inspiration to my fellow book creators and, for that matter, to the larger youth literature community—our heroes and champions.  I wanted to highlight, cheer, and pay tribute, to thank, offer a shoulder, and lend a hand—day after day after day.

What other websites / resources can you recommend for writers out on the agent hunt?

The links I feature at Children’s-YA Literature Resources, Nathan Bransford's blogGuide to Literary Agent’s Editor’s Blog by Chuck Sambuchino, and the Query Tracker blog.

From the looks of CYNSATIONS it seems you spend a sensational (uh – oh, bad joke) amount of time reading as well as writing. How do you typically find the authors you choose to feature on your blog?

Each year, I receive thousands of advanced reader copies and review copies of children’s-YA books from most of the major publishers and a number of the smaller/regional ones as well.

My very cute husband (and sometimes co-author) Greg Leitich Smith and I do our best to give every book fair consideration. Some are simply not a subject matter fit. Others are not produced at a production quality level sufficient for my audience, especially those folks who’re making purchasing decisions for schools and libraries.

From there, we choose thoughtfully. We try to offer a mix of age levels, formats, genres, and so forth. We have a commitment to diversity of content/characters—defined broadly, not only in terms of race/ethnicity, but also religion, region, socio-economic class, etc. We try to think both locally and globally—highlighting authors local to us in the southwestern United States but also from around the world.

I also have a great affection debut authors and invite them each year to participate in a special series in an effort to help introduce them to the wider youth literature community.

We make an effort to spread the love, so to speak, featuring as many book creators as possible. At the same time, we periodically update our readers on previously highlighted folks. We shine a light on big names, fresh faces and everyone in between.

All that said, I’m always keeping my eye out on the Web, via my social networks, and at children’s-YA book and writing events for authors to invite to chime in.

What are you reading now?  What books coming out are you most looking forward to?

I’m reading The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago (Sourcebooks), The Flint Heart by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco (Candlewick) and Odd Girl In by Jo Whittemore (Mix).
I look forward to Sass & Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte), Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore (Delacorte), and The Agency: The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick).

The book trailers for your YA titles featured on your blog are fantastic.  Did you do them yourself?

Thank you! The credit for the TANTALIZE and ETERNAL trailers goes to actor-singer-writer-filmmaker Shayne Leighton.The BLESSED trailer was produced by Candlewick Press in conjunction with animator-composer Curtis Sponsler. And my trailer for HOLLER LOUDLY was produced by author P.J. Hoover with voice work by fellow Austin writer Tim Crow.  I’m so grateful for all of their efforts.

I talk to a lot of aspiring writers who want to jump into the blogging game but are afraid it will take away from their writing time.  You write professionally, read prolifically, and blog continually.  What’s your secret?

The blog posts are formatted and scheduled well in advance—typically a couple of months before they go live. So, I don’t wake up every morning and put together my blog content from scratch. If I’m, say, on deadline, I can log in and simply PUBLISH.

That said, I’ve been known to put the blog on hiatus if I’m going on an extended tour or teaching at the Vermont College residency. Reading counts as writing time—no conflict there.

Writing is the job. I don’t try to fit my writing into my life. I try to fit my life around my writing—just like I would’ve if I’d gone on to become a full-time journalist or attorney.

Jeepers, I sound intense. Time to go dance to the soundtrack of Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.”