Thursday, April 26, 2012

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k12: Sarvenaz Tash & THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST

Introducing another member of the extraordinary class of 2k12, debut author Sarvenaz Tash, author of THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST. Once again a fascinating title - I love magical realism! - and I'm thrilled to have Sarvenaz on my blog.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

This is going to sound very Stephenie Meyer of me, but my main character really did come to me in a dream. I woke up with the name Goldenrod Moram in my head and wondered who would have that name: immediately, I thought of a young girl who was annoyed that her name sounded like she should be a fairy tale princess.

I was also inspired by things from my own childhood, namely The Goonies and the books of Roald Dahl and the very kid-centered magical realism vibe that they both share.

I'm a big believer in dreams! How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I’ve long wanted to do it and I wrote some kid-oriented TV scripts in college. It was almost 5 years ago that I decided to focus on writing novels for kids by taking a Gotham writing class. THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST was technically my first effort, but I wrote another MG in between starting that one and selling it. I’ve also completed one more MG and have bits and pieces of other works, including an adult novel and a YA.

Can you describe your path to the publication of THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST?

I started taking Gotham Children’s Writing classes in 2007 and that’s where I started the first draft of THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST (to give you an idea of how different it was, there was no ghost in any of the first 26 drafts of this book – seriously).

In 2008, I attended the SCBWI conference in New York and I got some much-needed encouragement from superagent Jodi Reamer, who read two pages of the book and was very, very kind about them.

By 2009, the teacher at the Gotham class I was continuing to take had decided to become an agent. She (very excitingly) offered to take me on as a client. At that point, I had written MG #2, which is what we went out on submission with.

MG #2 didn’t sell, but a few editors were interested in my writing and one, in particular, liked my voice in a humor blog I was keeping at the time. I suggested we submit my original humorous MG (MAPMAKER) to her, since the voice matched.

Although she liked the submission, it was too short for her to buy as is. So she very, very benevolently agreed to edit on spec with me. Incorporating her ingenious notes, I handed it back to her in March of 2010. And by August 2010, I had an offer!

What a great story. I love both the persistence you showed and the coincidences that worked. Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

If writing fulfills you and makes you happy; if even when you try not to, you can’t stop doing it; write and work hard and don’t be afraid to dream of it taking you places. But don’t do it as a means to an end. For it to be worthwhile, the writing itself should be enough of a joy (even if sometimes it’s the most horrifyingly frustrating thing in the world) -- everything else that might come with it is gravy!

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

Well, I got engaged a couple of months ago and am getting married in the spring. I’m finding wedding planning a welcome distraction from some of the anxieties of launching a book. J

Congratulations and best wishes to you both!! Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I have a completed MG that’s out on submission and am (very slowly and painfully) chipping away at another MG and YA.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST? 

Yes, indeed! They can find me at

Monday, April 16, 2012

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k12: J. Anderson Coats & The Wicked and the Just

I'm so delighted to bring you another interview with a debut author of the Class of 2k12, J. Anderson Coats, about her novel THE WICKED AND THE JUST. This novel is just my cup of tea - historical - and that cover is so appealing!

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, THE WICKED AND THE JUST. I’m so excited to be able to read historical fiction set in Wales. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

THE WICKED AND THE JUST takes place in 1293-1294 in north Wales, ten years into English rule.  Cecily is an unwilling transplant to the English walled town of Caernarvon, and she’d like nothing better than to go home.  Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh servant in Cecily’s new house, would like nothing better than to see all the English go home.  The ruling English impose harsh restrictions and taxation on the Welsh, and conditions in the countryside are growing desperate.  The rumors of rebellion might be Gwenhwyfar’s only salvation – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.

Medieval Wales doesn’t get a lot of attention despite the fact that it was a complicated, dynamic place.  The native rulers managed to resist outright conquest by their English neighbors until 1283, but then the victorious English fast-tracked a series of castles and walled towns to maintain control of the area and the people.

What interested me was this question: Even when granted a lot of special privileges - including significant tax breaks - how did English settlers live in a place where they were outnumbered twenty to one by a hostile, recently-subjugated population, and how did the Welsh live so close to people who’d done the subjugating, especially given the burdens placed on them by their new masters?

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I wrote my first novel at age thirteen.  It was about a hundred pages long, typed, single-spaced, and it was really bad.  By age eighteen, I’d written five more, each slightly less bad than the last.  I started querying at age twenty, and I queried four novels over ten years before I wrote and sold W/J.  Ray Bradbury famously said that your first million words don’t count.  I think it was more like two million for me.  So while this definitely isn’t my first book, it’s the first one that’s ready to go into the world.

Thirteen!! That's such an inspiration to young authors. Can you describe your path to the publication of THE WICKED AND THE JUST?

As I mentioned, I queried four different books over ten years, and I queried like it was my second job.  The Erin Murphy Literary Agency was always at the top of my list, but they don’t take unsolicited queries.  I queried like crazy all around them – I have something like two shoeboxes filled with rejections - and I came close to getting an offer of representation a number of times, but I always kept one eye on EMLA’s requirements for any change.

So when I got the chance to query Joan Paquette, I leaped on it.  What followed was a sort of courtship over nine months where she kept on asking for revisions and I kept making them, preparing for the eventual “no.”  But that “no” never came, and the ink wasn’t quite dry on my agency contract when W/J sold to Harcourt.  It was something like ten days between being unagented and my first sale - quite a whirlwind!

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Give yourself permission to write crap.  Everyone’s first drafts suck.  Your favorite writer?  Her first drafts suck.  Your other favorite writer?  His first drafts suck.  It’s more important to just write.  Get it on the page and repeat after me: “It’s a first draft.  It’s supposed to suck.”  You can fix things in a badly-written first draft, but it’s impossible to fix what doesn’t exist.

Can you tell us something about your personal life - inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I’ve been told my origin story is somewhat interesting.  I had a kid at age 19, a BA from a Seven Sisters college by age 22, a first master’s degree by 24, a second by 30, and a book contract by 32.  The future is less knowable.  Can I propose absurd yet awesome things like being hired by the National Library of Wales or writing full time?

It sounds like you've lived several lives already. Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I’m working on several projects right now.  One is a companion novel to W/J which follows Maredydd ap Madog, whose father is the ringleader of the rebellion of 1294, as he negotiates the future his father wants for him and the future he wants for himself.  Another project is a standalone novel set in twelfth-century Wales about a warband, an abduction, a charismatic but mercurial king’s son and a girl who’s willing to do about anything for a chance at a normal life.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about THE WICKED AND THE JUST?

I do! - I also spend way too much time on Facebook, so feel free to stop by there as well!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Highlights Founders Workshops: A Novel Experience

A few weeks ago I had the fabulous experience of serving as a Teaching Assistant, along with Karyn Henley (see previous post), at a Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. Our talented faculty were authors Kathi Appelt, Alan Gratz, Jeanette Ingold, and editor Martha Mihalick. Sixteen students brought completed novels to the workshop, with time to revise based on the individual feedback they received from faculty mentors and the group input as we workshopped the first twenty pages.

I was deeply impressed by the experience, and wanted to share some of it with you – including an interview (below) with author Helen Hemphill, who has taken the awesome responsibility of organizing and staffing the faculty portion of Foundation events (you can find a schedule of upcoming events here.)

Our workshop group in mid-March
The workshop itself ran as smooth as silk. There was plenty of time between one-on-one consults and group workshops for participants to work in their cabins or to walk in the gorgeous countryside or to socialize. The TA’s were given time to be available for consults and evenings were for the most part free.

The facility is lovely. Each participant is provided with a comfortable rustic but fully equipped cabin with its own bath (a main house was undergoing renovations but will provide extra rooms soon.) A brand new conference center - the "Barn" - houses the kitchen and dining areas, plus extra space for lectures and workshop; there are lots of lovely nooks for hiding out and working, reading, or meditating. The atmosphere lends itself to spiritual renewal. And the food...the Highlights folks have gone to great lengths to prepare gourmet meals (and they will individualize for those with allergies or dietary needs), from the wine and hors d’oeuvres before dinner to the nourishing breakfasts to the always-available snacks and coffee.

I heard rave reviews about the experience from participants, most of whom were unpublished and early in their writing careers. I saw many make huge leaps of craft and commitment during our five days together.

I’m turning the floor over to Helen who graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Please tell us generally about the Highlights Founders Workshops – what your plans are for 2012 and beyond.

The porch of the cabin I shared with Karyn...lovely!
The Founders Workshops have been taking place since May 2000 at the former home of the Founders of Highlights for Children in northeastern Pennsylvania.  The location is a beautiful farm complete with cozy cabins and a new conference center called The Barn that opened last fall.  This facility has allowed the Highlights Foundation to expand our workshop offerings for writers and illustrators in 2012 with over three-dozen workshops during the year.  Our programming is broad based with workshops for writers and illustrators at all levels of experience and expertise.  Our hope is to continue to refine and expand our workshop offerings so that we may serve our mission to raise the level of the offering of writing and illustrating for children.

You have a great mix of classes for beginners and pros, for fiction and non-fiction, and for various genres. Will the template be the same for each year?

We are working on our programming for 2013 and have some interesting new ideas in store for both writers and illustrators!  The Barn gives us much more flexibility in our plans, but our aim is to offer tracks in both fiction and nonfiction each year so that writers of all levels may hone their skills. Of course, we will have specialized programming for illustrators as well! I’m excited about one of our possible offerings in 2013--a literature-based weekend where teachers, critics, editors, librarians, and writers gather to discuss the elements of what makes a good book.  I’m sure this weekend will offer up some great discussion!

A sweet spot to sit outside the Barn, cabins in the background.
I was so impressed with the thoughtful organization that went into planning the workshop schedule. Does each workshop demand an individual approach?

The Highlights Foundation is known for its exceptional level of hospitality and its dedication to good teaching.  While we like to make it look easy, it takes a great deal of planning and detail to make a workshop run well.  We do take an individual approach to each program to make sure the experience will be one of outstanding value to our attendees.  We talk a lot about the details and try to anticipate the needs and expectations of the writers and illustrators we serve.

The grounds are gorgeous. Kent (Brown, executive director of the Highlights Foundation) mentioned plans in the works. Can you tell us what is coming for the future?

We’re not quite ready to make a formal announcement, but there is more construction happening at the farm!  Currently, the original farmhouse is being totally renovated for use as a smaller meeting space.  But we also have some bigger plans in the works.  Your readers will just have to check out our web site, or better yet, come to a workshop to see for themselves! A Founders Workshop is the perfect place to focus on creative work, learn something new, and have a great time. A complete list of 2012 Founders Workshops is on our website at or you can call Jo Lloyd for information at 570-253-1192. 

Thanks so much Helen!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Karyn Henley Guest Post: "Writers as Weight Lifters: Keeping Characters Off Balance"

A couple of weeks ago I had the great experience of being a teaching assistant at a Highlights Whole Novel Workshop (more on that next week.) But I had the singular good fortune to room with and TA beside award-winning YA author Karyn Henley.

Karyn is one of the sweetest, kindest people I've met (and it's no easy task rooming with a complete stranger in what could be a stressful circumstance. This was the least stressful roomie situation ever.) She's also a Vermont College grad (go VCFA!) and a talented writer AND an accomplished and award-winning song writer. Her novel (BREATH OF ANGEL) is on my nightstand, calling to me, and her second novel (EYE OF THE SWORD; and check out the hunky guy on that cover...) launched while we were in Pennsylvania. Yay, Karyn!

Karyn wrote me the following guest post and I'm delighted to share this fabulous offering.

Novel writers are the nicest cruel people I know. As I write this, I'm at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop with 21 other writers, all wonderfully nice people. But at this moment, with a morning free for writing, all these wonderfully nice writers are putting their characters in peril, pelting them with problems, and blocking their goals. Ah, but there's a reason for our madness. We're creating tension.
Agent Donald Maass is known for telling writers to put tension on every page. Keep the reader in suspense. Raise the stakes. While these axioms are simple to remember, they're not so easy to do. Some writers are reluctant to hurt their protagonists, which creates a boring story. Some writers throw every problem in the world at their characters, which makes the story either unbelievable and cartoonish or unrelenting and burdensome. So how do we create believable tension?
Tension comes in different weights. Writers test the weights to find what will keep the character – and the reader – off balance. The heaviest weights are fate-of-the-world suspense and life-and-death situations, although a child may experience the loss of a pet or an encounter with bullies as end-of-the-world heavy. Midweight tension comes from obstacles that delay a character or reveal a new problem to solve. Added together, several midweight obstacles can build heavy tension, especially with a clock ticking.
We usually know that our stories need at least one heavy weight problem and several midweight obstacles, but we sometimes forget the lighter weights. That's where we get tension on every page. Tension doesn't have to come from a fight or a chase or a disaster. Tension doesn't have to hit the page with a new problem or a ticking clock. Tension doesn't even have to come from facing an antagonist. As long as it keeps the protagonist off balance, it's tension.
Subtext between friends can convey tension. He wants to kiss her. She wants him to. Will they? In scene after scene they don't even touch. The tension builds. Once they kiss, the tension is released. So the writer keeps the tension going as long as possible.
Dialogue between friends can keep characters off balance. If one character says, "I'm applying for a job at Walgreen's," and her friend says, "Great idea," there's no tension. If her friend responds, "Why?" or argues, "You can't," there's tension. How-are-you-I'm-fine dialogue creates no tension. Delete it unless it covers an obvious, tense subtext, in which case the reader knows that the banter hides darker feelings and motives.
A character's goal is to bring some aspect of his life into balance. As you read, notice how writers deny their characters that balance. As you write, select the weights you need, and then shift the balance of your character's external or internal world in every scene. Keep your characters ­– and readers – off balance.

Find out more about Karyn here.