Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith- The Author’s Journey


An author’s path to publication can feel like THE HERO’S JOURNEY, full of pitfalls, pratfalls, and painful perseverance.  (also see Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY.)
Well, it got me thinking.  If story can be broken down into predictable stages, surely an author’s journey toward publication can be broken down as well.  What are the stages of the author’s journey and how does it change after publication?
I’m so over-the-top excited that Cynthia Leitich Smith agreed to join the discussion here. 

Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of ETERNAL, TANTALIZE, and BLESSED (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include JINGLE DANCER, INDIAN SHOES and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (all HarperCollins), and HOLLER LOUDLY (both Dutton). She is also a prolific author of short stories for children and young adults and has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines for young readers.

Though currently on extended leave, Cyn is a member of faculty at the Vermont College of FineArts M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Her website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column. Her author interviews, publishing news, and professional insights draw 40,000 page views per month. 

View BLESSED book trailer
View the book trailer

First, Cyn, congratulations on the recent announcement of your new three-book deal to Candlewick Press. What can we expect from the first novel, SMOLDER?

SMOLDER is set in the TANTALIZE series universe. It’ll feature new protagonists and bring back a couple of secondary characters. In response to YA reader requests, the story is centered on shape-shifters and spins off a couple of threads introduced in previous books.
I expect it to be a bit sassier than its predecessors—funnier, more of a mystery, and, for lack of a better word, more smoldering on the romantic and action fronts. I don’t want to think far beyond that yet.
What else do you have in the works?
My 2012 novel, DIABOLICAL, is off to copy editing, but there is still finalizing to be done there, too. I’ve never written a book in such an intense way or had so much fun doing it. DIABOLICAL is the fourth and final of my books in conversation with Abraham Stoker’s DRACULA.
More immediately, I can hardly wait for the release of my first graphic novel, TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY, illustrated by Ming Doyle. I’ve been an avid graphic format AKA comics reader since before kindergarten, and I’m still pinching myself at the idea of being on the other side of the byline. 
You’ve often referred to pre-published authors as apprentices. Why?
In a way, we’re all apprentices, or at least we should be, forever striving to improve our craft.
That said, assuming traditional trade publication and career building are central of your vision, the writer’s window of opportunity beforehand is precious and, at least in retrospect, fleeting.
You’re not yet pressured by public criticism or the commercial market or someone else’s schedule. You haven’t yet made that first impression. You’re not held back by mid-list sales numbers, and you could still debut as the new hot thing. You still have time to do so when you’re better, stronger, and braver than you are today. You still have time to learn, grow, and strategize.
You may need to write another novel manuscript or five, a short story or ten, a picture book or twenty and think of them as labs, venues for experimentation. You may shift gears, privately.
You can ask yourself if the manuscript in your hand is the one you really want to introduce yourself with, ponder whether you’ll still have enthusiasm for it in the years, perhaps decades to come. After all, the journey of a book doesn’t end with publication. It’s just getting started.
You can ask yourself if you’re ready for the spotlight and answer: No, not yet.
Even better? When the time is right, you can say: Yes, now.
When you consider your own personal journey to publication, your observations as teacher and mentor, and your numerous author interviews on Cynsations, if you could brake down the author’s journey to publication into specific stages or acts, what would it look like?
With the above-mentioned caveat that journeys vary (and that I’m focusing on literary trade authors/books), here’s a not-uncommon one that’s conducive to success:
1) A passion for reading, writing, language, story, a vivid imagination, a quest for knowledge, a desire for connection.
2) Reading like a writer, writing with intent.
3) Seeking support in the craft of writing through workshops hosted by professional writing organizations, online classes, critique groups, formal study.
4) Continuing all of the above, with the priority remaining on the craft of writing, while building a familiarity with publishing as a business.
5) Achieving a level of skill that results in a manuscript that is fresh and competitive in the fierce, international market for youth literature.
6) Seeking/obtaining representation by an experienced (or well mentored) literary agent grounded in publishing for young readers per se.
7) Continuing to write and produce manuscripts. Revising upon request and inspiration.
8) A first sale that eventually results in a published book
9) Continued revising, pouring through copy edits, art, pass pages.
10) Pre-publication business preparation, including publicity, while continuing to write.
Given that everyone’s journey is different, how much time should a pre-published/apprentice author expect to invest in learning the craft before expecting publication? Maybe a more succinct question would be, how long does the average author’s journey to publication take in terms of years, words, manuscripts, rejections?
When I began seriously writing with an eye toward publication in the late 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that the journey was on average seven to ten years.
Today, if I had to wager on it, I’d reduce that average window, if only because there is so much more information and support opportunities/resources available to beginning writers, especially online. We’ve seen a rise in MFA programs and Web-based classes, and the kidlitosphere is bursting with insights related to both craft and career.
Also, publishers are taking chances on new voices in a way that they weren’t ten-to-fifteen years ago. 2011 is a banner year to be new author or not-yet-published serious writer.
Note: Keep in mind, “average” means that there are folks on either side of that window who find success.
How is the path-to-publication different today than it was when you were seeking your first publication?
The plethora of agents is probably the biggest change. Back in the day, I could count the “name” children’s-YA agents on my fingers. Many people believed that it was unnecessary to have an agent if you published for young readers. Some of the top authors didn’t. A few of them still don’t. But that changed not long afterward, in large part, I suspect because of the commercial success of Harry Potter and the rise of electronic rights issues.
I never pitched to an agent or wrote a traditional query letter. I first connected with my agent through a children’s author listserv.
Information about…well, everything, but particularly editors’ tastes and publishing news was more difficult to come by. SCBWI offered an earlier version of its outstanding newsletter that included market news, as did Children’s Writer and a few other sources. But you certainly couldn’t hit a search engine, type in an editor or agent’s name, and pull up a handful of interviews or follow her on Twitter.
Should pre-published authors write to current publishing trends?
It depends on whether they’re already extraordinarily passionate about a genre or concept that is popular.
Let’s take mermaid books, which recently have been proclaimed both the latest thing and a false trend. If you live, breathe, and dream mermaids, if you’ve spent the past five years researching aquatic mammals to write one, if you’ve constructed your mermaid society and catch phrases and fallen in love with your character, by all means, write your mermaid book. Please.
It might be a marketing challenge. But there’s always room for innovative, heartfelt work.
Worst case scenario: Write it and shop it again in five years.
Much of publishing has the institutional memory of a gnat.
On the other fin, if you’re thinking: Mermaids are trendy so I might as well strap on a tail and see what happens….You may want to reconsider that.
How important do you think web presence and networking is for pre-published authors?
It’s far less important than writing or reading books. Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say for sure. So much of this has evolved since I was in that position. However, I’ve seen impressive e-portfolios by author-illustrators and online resources that establish nonfiction writers’ expertise. Certainly, being a participant in the conversation of writing/books/publishing on the ‘net offers others insights into who you are as person and professional.
Just so you know: Many agents will key your name into a search engine. Whatever you post online—whether it’s marked “personal”/ “private” or not—is up for professional consumption. That may affect what you elect to put out there. It may not. It’s up to you, but realize that’s part of the larger dynamic and act accordingly.
As for networking, perhaps focus on connecting, sharing, and supporting in an authentic and heartfelt way instead. Take an upbeat, welcoming, respectful, and—when appropriate—nurturing attitude to everyone you meet in the youth literature community.
What general advice would you give to authors traversing their own journey toward publication?
Celebrate every victory, no matter how small. The writing life has its share of “no.” Say “yes” to yourself and your writing pals again and again to balance that out—and then some.
Also, if you get writer’s block, try dancing into the dark to the soundtrack from Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.” It always works for me.
Frequently, we hear that authors should determine their “brand” and stick with it. Yet, doing so would feel very confining for creative artists. You are a great example of a multi-genre, diversified author. What are your thoughts about branding?
First, I’m not the only one. Off the top of my head, authors like Linda Sue Park, Kathi Appelt, Kate DiCamillo, Laurie Halse Anderson, M.T. Anderson, Shutta Crum, Rita Williams-Garcia, Chris Barton, Kimblerly Willis Holt, Jennifer L. Holm, Michelle Knudsen, Tanya Lee Stone, Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Joseph Bruchac, Marion Dane Bauer, and so many others write across formats, age levels, genres, and more.
I write picture books through young adult novels, short stories and graphic format, realistic and fantasy fiction because I love it all. My language is sharper and more lyrical because of writing picture books. I’m more comfortable writing novels from a male point of view because I did so first in short stories. I can write fantasy with more depth and resonance because I learned the structure of story through realistic fiction first. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I’m a better writer because I’m open to new challenges. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
On a pragmatic level, I’m also qualified to teach a wider range of writing students and speak to gatekeepers for elementary through high schools. And by so often straddling the literary/commercial line, I’m able to produce books that appeal both to grown-up critics and discerning young readers.
How does the author’s journey change after the first book is published?
The author’s journey is always changing, and so is the writer’s. For context, I do separate them in my mind. Writer Cyn is me. Cynthia Leitich Smith is a persona and a byline.
The first book is a tremendous achievement. It should be heralded, celebrated in whatever way is most satisfying to you. It comes with certain opportunities, creates certain limitations. Once you become published, the business of being an author may seem overwhelming at times. So can the feeling of exposure. You’ll have to navigate the juxtaposition of expectations and reality—your own perceptions/experiences and those of the people closest to you.
But ultimately, it’s a place to begin a conversation with your readers for years, perhaps generations to come.
Any general advice for the newly-published author?
To an extent, you’re starting over with each new book.
So, drink plenty of water. Pack light. Wear comfortable shoes to the convention center.
Get two cats, if you don’t already have any. Keep them inside and well fed.
It’s said: If a cat sits on your manuscript, it will sell.
I have four cats. I frequently read my work aloud to them.
They love everything I write.

4 Responses to “Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith- The Author’s Journey”

  1. Lindsey Lane

    A great interview. I can't decide which I liked more the questions (perceptive) or the answers (revealing). Thank you both.

  2. Donna

    Thank you, Brian and Lindsey.

    Cyn is always so insightful and positive. I love how she points to every potentially frustrating stage of the journey in a positive manner.

  3. Samantha Clark

    Great interview, Donna and Cyn. Thanks for all the information.

    Quick question, Cyn. If I get my dog to sit on my manuscript, will it work as well as a cat? 🙂