Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Talking Craft, Diversity, and Genre-Hopping with Cynthia Leitich Smith

Today, I'm sitting down laptop to laptop with my friend and mentor, author Cynthia Leitich Smith. Cyn lives here in Texas--Austin--and she is not only a gifted writer but also a generous and fine human being, one I have turned to for advice numerous times while traversing this wonderful but often crazy career. I adore all of Cyn's writing, but I'm particularly fond of her mix of humor and paranormal in her TANTALIZE series, which begins, as she describes it on her own website as: "the story of Quincie P. Morris, a teen struggling to help save her family's Italian restaurant by re-launching it with a vampire them. It's a great idea until some real vampires show up and her best friend, Kieren, is suddenly suspected of murder." 

Plus she and I bonded long ago over our mutual love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As fans of the Whedonverse do…

I also admire Cyn's ability to balance a life, teaching, and a writing career, and her willingness and flexibility to write across numerous genres. The latter is not a simple thing. We tend to get branded as authors (and to some degree because our readers have a sense of expectation of what we will produce) and for those of us who want to write more widely, this can be tricky. Cynthia Leitich Smith manages it with skill and ease.

Today I'm catching up with Cyn about her career, diversity in children's lit, writing across genres, teaching, and other Cynthia Leitich Smith wisdom!

JOY: Does having already achieved New York Times Bestseller status and numerous other accolades for your work put a certain level of pressure on your writing? If not, then how do you avoid it? 

CYN: Thank you. Honestly, I’m too busy to worry about it. Between writing, teaching, mentoring, traveling, public speaking, promotion, lunching with friends, lifting weights, power walking, and playing fetch with my kitty, I’m maxed out. Any lingering insecurities will have to wait.

JOY: You have spoken and written widely on the issue of diversity in children’s lit. Can you address your current thoughts on this, particularly with the influence of #WeNeedDiverseBooks on titles being acquired? Are publishers doing enough? Are authors?

CYN: Sure! We did see a slight uptick in certain underrepresented categories in the past year, but it’s too soon to gauge the long-term impact of #WNDB on acquisitions. We all must continue to strategize and try new approaches. The demographics demand a solution. The young reader population is already minority-majority. The deadline is now.

As authors, we are in a unique position to effect positive change:
We should thoughtfully work toward offering more diverse casts and topics.
We should mentor new voices from all corners of our global children’s-YA literature community.
We should raise awareness of great books (including but not limited to our own) that reflect the full spectrum of humanity today.
We should advocate for an inclusive approach to event programming.
We should keep the diversity conversation alive and boisterous.

JOY: Like some of my other favorite authors, including E. Lockhart, you are a veteran genre shifter, writing YA, chapter books, picture books. Tell us about the creative process that enables such amazing versatility.

CYN: Ah, I’m an E. Lockhart fan myself.

I start with character and setting. The protagonist dictates the age-market format. Jenna is a young girl, preparing to dance at her first powwow. She’s a picture book hero. Yoshi is a cougar-like werecat on the front lines of a brewing interspecies war. He’s a YA hero. Simple as that.

As for craft considerations, model texts teach me much of what I need to know.

I read regularly and extensively across the body of youth literature, making mental notes. I also learn from presentations and articles by my colleagues, especially my VCFA family, and I lean heavily on transferable skills.

The lyricism and precision of picture book writing improved my novels. Short stories offered confidence-building opportunities to employ humor and points of view farther from my comfort zone.

When I approach a new format—like graphic novels—I ask myself: How is this like that? Both graphic novels and picture books involve writing visually. Both prose and graphic novels require plotting a novel in the whole.

I remind myself of what I do know rather than spin pointlessly on what I don’t (yet). I make every effort to be my own best cheerleader.

JOY: And that said, do you have a favorite genre? Why is it your favorite?

CYN: I’m most comfortable writing YA fiction, but my ultimate goal is to write at least one middle-grade novel. My favorite of my titles is a picture book. I’m not sure how all that shakes out. I have either great range or a complete lack of focus.

JOY: You do a lot of teaching. What do you enjoy most about the act of teaching the craft of writing?

CYN: I’m continually blessed with inspiring students. It gives me such joy to watch them grow in their literary art and cheer as they triumph in their careers.

That said, I’m an intuitive writer. Teaching forces me to analyze and articulate. That, in turn, forces me to quickly access, to define and refine my insights.  Doing so, again and again, for students facilitates my being able to better serve my own works in progress. It’s exercise for my writing brain.

JOY: What would be your top bits of advice for writers aiming at publication?

CYN: Embrace your apprenticeship. Experiment. Play. Join SCBWI. Make friends. Educate yourself about children’s-YA literature, its surrounding conversations, and both the history and current societal forces that brought us all to this point.

Read. It’s the most obvious advice, the most repeated, and, alas, the most ignored. It’s also nearly impossible to succeed in the conversation of books if you don’t speak the language, if you aren’t familiar with the cultural touchstones (defined broadly). Remember: Reading counts as writing time.

Study writing with established author-teachers, professionals who’re accomplished on both fronts. Just be sure to consider their track records (and your budget) carefully.

Beware of cycling too long exclusively on one project. I’m not suggesting that whatever you’ve been working on won’t eventually sell. But it may be the skills built while working on other manuscripts that facilitate it reaching that milestone. Most of us improve story by story, not with one story over time.

JOY: For writers aiming at maintaining a career?

CYN: Choose yourself. Don’t wait for the publisher to promote your book to lead title. Don’t wait for your head to be graced with a crown or your slippers to be buried in laurels. Raise that chin and vow to do this:

Decide who you want to be in the children’s-YA community.

If a vision doesn’t immediately occur to you, consider various models—authors whose craft and careers you admire. Ask yourself what about them appeals. Strategize affirmative, achievable steps to work toward that goal, that identity with your unique style and spin.

Then snap to it. Own your awesomeness, claim the author you want to be today.

JOY: What’s coming next for Cynthia Leitich Smith?

CYN: Next fall, my chapter “All’s Well,” will appear in Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse, 2015), and I’m currently working on a realistic contemporary YA to be published by Candlewick.  

Thanks again!

For more on Cynthia Leitich Smith, go to:

And for her acclaimed blog on all things publishing, head to: CYNSATIONS


Akiko White said...

"Beware of cycling too long exclusively on one project." Great suggestion Cynthia. It applies to art also. Other projects come to the forefront and I have to abandon the one that I am working on, but when I return to it I have that much more knowledge and create a better piece!

Thank for sharing Joy and Cynthia. :)

Robin said...

Great interview. I mean so much from Cyn and her blog.

Dede said...

Love both of these authors/educators. My favorite line from the interview--"Own your awesomeness, claim the author you want to be today." Off to write and read!

Joy Preble said...

So glad everyone is enjoying Cyn's very thoughtful answers!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thank you, ladies! It's been an honor!