Cynthia Leitich Smith

Austin trip – the inside story

Yesterday I shared the few pictures I got on my trip to Austin. Today I want to share the inside story.

The decision to go to Austin for the one day VCFA conference was a sudden one made in the burst of confidence that I was riding after a conversation with an editor who had said all sorts of great things about me. Still flying high I quickly signed up and paid the registration before I could change my mind. It took about a week for me to start to freak out.

Sure, I "knew" some of these people online, some of them for many years. But was I really going to get on a plane and fly to a place where I had no backup, no one I would be assured to walk around with, no one to pull me out from behind the potted plant when I wanted to hide? On top of that I am taking an online course which requires 10 pages of writing per week and I hadn’t finished my work for the week. I haven’t been able to succesfully write away from home since my kids were little. (They’re 27 and 30 now, so it’s been a while.) And of course there were the various choruses of doubt, what if they didn’t like me? What if we had nothing to talk about? What if I stuck my foot in my mouth?

I am an introvert who can fake the extrovert when I’m in the public but who needs a lot of quiet alone time to recharge my energy. I am a doubting Thomas when it comes to believing in myself and my gifts and my right to write. I am a person who has let a lot of life slip on by because I was too afraid to go out and live it. But I want to be different. I want to but sometimes I just don’t know how.

When I got off the plane in Austin the first thing I saw in the terminal was a Schlotzsky’s deli. Back when I lived in New Orleans I ate at Schlotzsky’s a couple of times a week because it was the cheapest place to eat next to where I was taking some night classes. So when I saw that Schlotzsky’s sign I was instantly transported back to New Orleans. I tell you, I went weak in the knees and felt like my trip was over right then and there. (For those who don’t know, no, I did not live there during Katrina but it was a traumatic time for me for other reasons.) Honestly I had to find a chair and sit down before I fell down because instead of coming in one at a time, memories washed over me like giant waves and I was drowning in things I didn’t want to remember.

But I shook it off. Reminded myself I was not in New Orleans, I was in Texas. And Texas welcomed me with open arms.

I was so glad I went early to have time to visit with friends, Don Tate, Mary Sullivan, Liz Scanlon, Peni Griffin – the four of you set the bar high for the rest of the trip. There were no awkward moments. There were no long stretches of silence when no one knew what to say. There was just wonderful conversation and sharing and laughter that flled up holes in me that I didn’t even know I had.

By the time I got to the conference I was feeling like someone had released a super power that I never knew I had. From the first hug from old friend Cynthia Leitich Smith to the last hug from new friend Donna Bowman Bratton, it was a near perfect trip.

There were some odd moments, like when I came out of the bathroom and looked around and everyone had someone to talk to and for a minute, I felt myself falter. And then the foot in the mouth time when I not once, but twice, mistook one person for someone else. An important person that I should have known. And the scariest part of all was when Kathi Appelt was talking about a verse novel that didn’t quite work for her and I kept thinking, Please don’t let it be my book. Please. Please. Please. And thankfully, it wasn’t Hugging the Rock.

But those moments were few and far between. To meet friends in person that I have built various relationships with online was such a gift. It changes things once you have that face-to-face time. It changes things for the better. I never once stopped to ask myself what I was doing here or why these people might want to converse with me. I just did it and in the doing it I realized that we each brought something special to the table that once shared, was made even more special. With each conversation I felt my confidence grow.

What I found most fascinating and perhaps frustrating is that I was able to relax and be myself in this place so far from home and yet I find it so hard to do the same thing in my own arena. I’m not quite sure how to work on that but I need to figure it out.

What did I learn? I learned that I could, again, write away from home. And not just crummy pages but good pages that earned good feedback. I learned that my years in the business had taught me much and I was able to share some of that knowledge with others. I learned that most of the other writers there felt just as lost and unsure of themselve as I did.  Most importantly I learned to look at myself differently, as an equal, as a person of value. I learned to let go of a lot of negative voices that were fighting in my head telling me the opposite of what I could see for myself.

None of this matters to anyone reading this blog as much as it matters to me. That’s okay. You can read or pass on by.

I know the inside story and that’s all that matters to me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009|Categories: Random|Tags: , |19 Comments


Cassie is a rescue dog. That means she came to me with a whole lot of baggage. Some of it I know (a stray taken to the pound, adopted, then returned) and some of it I can only imagine. We’ve worked to overcome what we can. The separation anxiety is mostly gone now. The nervous barking has calmed down a lot. She doesn’t mind if you touch her anywhere, pick up any of her feet and tickle between the pads, lift her tail or brush her all over. I can put drops in her ears and stick my fingers in her mouth. Use a Dremel on her nails? No problem.

But she is still fearful of getting hurt. And I think it is emotional more than physical. I see it in the way she is afraid of small dogs, running to hide behind me as they approach. If I come at her with a hand over her head, she cowers. If I reach for her collar from the side, she drops her shoulders, puts her ears back and waits for the worst thing to happen. And if she goes out back and the angry teenage boy in the house behind us is yelling at his mom, she turns and runs back into the house. She’d rather cross her legs and hold it than walk out into all that angry noise. Some of these issues I still hope to overcome. Some of them, that fear that something bad is going to happen that cancels out all the good, I may never be able to completely take away.

I write from a place of constant fear.

There are the basic fears that many writers have. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of no one liking what I write, even after it’s published. Fear of success and fear of failure. Fear of being judged a certain kind of person because of what I do or don’t write about.

But the biggest fear is probably that someone will learn something about me, sometime maybe I didn’t want them to know, maybe even something I don’t know myself, all because they read my stories so closely they found the pieces of me woven between the words.

It’s what I fear and yet, it’s also why I write.

Those pieces of me that make it into the story, my heart, my blood, my tears, are what connect me to the reader. Even if it is just one person, just to know I touched someone with my words, well it’s powerful enough to keep me coming back to the keyboard no matter how afraid I might be.

My last book, Hugging the Rock, was a heart-wrung kind of story. Because of the subject matter the reader came to the book expecting to have me stomp on their heart a few times. One of my favorite reviews came from Cynthia Leithch Smith (Cynsations) who said in part, “It’s also a whole-heart book. You feel your whole heart break and re-knit as you read.‘ I admit that I like it when people tell me it made them cry. The writing of it all made me cry too.

Flyboy’s story is different. It’s not a funny story yet it’s not one that you would come to expecting to have your heart broken and put back together again. But that’s what I’m trying to do. And to do that I need to run headfirst into the angry noises and let them rain down on me.

It’s not easy. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust the story.

And I’m trying not to cower or pull away.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |20 Comments

VCFA in the Lone Star State

Okay, I may not be heading to SCBWI but I am, in October, going to the VCFA event in the Lone Star State.

Anyone else going?

I am registered and now entering the “how do I decide which hotel to stay at” phase. This phase is soon to be followed by the “ohmygosh how am I going to get from point A to point B and everywhere else phase” which is also known as the typical (for me) transportation panic phase. Other phases soon to follow will include the “what if I have forgotten how to do the chit chat in person networking phase,” the “everyone will be younger or skinnier or more talented than I am phase” and then of course the “is it too late to change my mind and cancel phase.” Oh, and let’s not forget the “I have nothing to wear phase” which I’m sure I will pass through several times.

I kid you not.

Yes, I am an introverted wimp but I am really going to try and break out at least a little bit.

I think I am going to go a day early on the chance that I can have some time to meet some local friends. So if you live in the area, please let me know because otherwise I will go early and then sit in my hotel room playing the stupid bubble game on my phone until the battery dies.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009|Categories: Random|Tags: , , |4 Comments

Research is another word for procrastination

I usually start researching a new book while I am in the midst of a current project. The idea behind that being I want to shorten the down time between finishing a book and diving into something new. It doesn’t work because no matter how much pre-research I have done I seem to always need a few months of down time (woe-is-me I’ll never write again time) between books. It’s my process and I try to honor it even if I don’t like or understand it.

Even though I ground my books by tying them in some time or way to an aspect of myself and my life there is always some sort of research to be done. Research for me usually starts with reading a bunch of fiction that has been pubbed in an area that might be similar to mine. (Books that would show up on a list of  “If you liked this book then you might like this one.”) So for HUGGING THE ROCk I read every verse novel I could get my hands on. Then I read a lot of novels about divorce and mental illness and family relationships. After I feel full up on fiction it’s time to dig in deep for the details and move to the non-fiction. For Hugging the Rock that meant a lot of psychology stuff, case histories, divorce stories – you get the idea. When I couldn’t stand to read another word it was time to get down to the actual writing. Well, the trying to write. As I explained in a recent interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith the words didn’t exactly race from my fingertips to the page.

Anyway. HUGGING THE ROCK is done. I’ve gone through the galley for the final corrections and after a last chat with my editor tomorrow it heads off to the printers next week. It’s time to write. I made a commitment to start a new verse novel that I will refer to by the acronym MTLB until it is sold. I know sort of what it is about. (It’s inspired by the year long writing program I did at an alternative school a few years ago.) I know sort of who it is about. (M and his dad and N and his dad and Mrs. W.) I did a lot of research the last six months on juvenile justice and poverty and teaching and a bunch of other stuff that may or may not make it into the book. I wrote a few poems. I wrote a couple more. Then I got stuck and found myself using the excuse that I needed to do more research. Read just one more case history. Google a few more phrases. Watch one more movie. (Hey, movies are GREAT for research.) But after a few days of this I realized the truth. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t researching. I was just procrastinating. Sometimes I wonder if procrastination is just a stew bubbling on a backburner, waiting for us to throw everything into the pot, stirring and adding interesting ingredients until the smell overpowers us and we simply have to dig in.

So yes, research is important. But knowing when to stop researching is important too. The research will still be there after I finish a draft, if I feel I really need it but you can’t factcheck a book you haven’t written yet.

And in the “thank you for all the kind words about me” department, I’ve had a few more shout-outs. It always feels a bit awkward tooting my own horn but here goes:

My picture book Oliver’s Must-do List received a nice review from Jen Robinson’s Book page.

Jen also reviewed Hugging the Rock. My favorite lines in review? “Rachel’s voice is pitch perfect.” and the fact that she calls the Mother’s Day poem “brilliant” and that she said, “I give it my highest recommendation.” Wow! Thank you, Jenn.

More lovely words about Hugging the Rock over here at Mindy’s Book Journal. and here at  Bec’s Book Blog.

Thank you so much for your support of my book.

Cynsations interview posted

The lovely and talented Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed me for her blog Cynsations. I am honored that she gave Hugging the Rock a much-coveted “Highly Recommended” tag.

Thank you, Cynthia.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006|Categories: Random|Tags: , |36 Comments

I'm back

I’m back, mostly. Exhausted? Very. Writing much? Not a word. I know, I bet some of you thought I was off writing the really really bad thing I mentioned a couple of weeks ago but you know life sometimes gets in the way of what we want to do. Actually I realized I had a major problem with the pivotal scene because there would have to be some legal ramifications dealt with in the book and it wasn’t where I wanted the focus to go. Plus I realized it would probably remove the mom from the story which wasn’t what I wanted to do. But then, in that way that plots do, it all turned on me and it might work after all but I need to talk to a cop and a lawyer to find out what would happen in that particular situation. Is all that about as clear as mud?

I’ve been so busy that there’s not been a lot of time to think about writing. The end of the fiscal year at work meant tons of long days and lots of working with numbers (and you know how much I don’t love numbers.) My husband who never travels for work is now bouncing all over the globe for a week gone, a few days home, then gone again. He just got back from Sydney and left this morning for France. I think it’s Singapore after that. Because he doesn’t usually travel things have gone all topsy turvy around the house.

Then there’s still the publicity stuff which is really a full time job that I can’t work on full time because I already have a full time job. All the brochures and flyers are printed. I’ve almost finished sanitizing the mailing list. My focus was to hit California hard because I figure I need to make a name for myself in my own backyard. I’ve figured out who gets what in their envelopes. Schools that are within an easy driving distance from me get the full packet including my brochure. Bookstores get the Oliver announcement postcard. Ditto the libraries. Schools not within driving distance will probably get the promo stuff plus the traveling Oliver flyer. But wait, there’s more. I got my copies of my new book from Millbrook, Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom which meant that I had to quickly design a new postcard, order it, then go back and refigure who needs to get both postcards. Then I had to factor in new places to send to since the book takes place in South Carolina and Robert Smalls who started life as a slave went on to become a congressman for South Carolina. So back to the mailing list to build up the south and Civil War angles and oh, Black History month. The result is that I am about to start stuffing close to 2,000 envelopes and will send out about 1,000 postcards on their own. It’s exciting having two books come out so close together but it’s a lot of work too. Robert Smalls is out officially in January though it looks like Amazon says they are shipping now. I know the first batch of books have gone out for review and now we’re at the waiting process again. Felicia Marshall, whom I believe lives in Texas, did all the illustrations and I just love them.

Cynthia Leitich Smith posted an interview with me and the illustrator for Oliver’s Must-Do List. I have to say that being interviewed is much harder than it might look. I love the way interview questions really make you think about the process.

Haemi Balgassi sent me a big batch of love when she blogged about reading Oliver with her daughter Lousia and then the divine Miss Princess Hello Kitty    blogged about Oliver herself which gave me a wonderful warm fuzzy when I needed it most.

I’m off to start printing mailing labels but in-between I’ll try to catch up on everyone’s life for the last couple of weeks.