By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for CynsationsKit Grindstaff
is the first-time author of The Flame in the Mist
(Delacorte, 2013). From the promotional copy:The sun never shines in the land of Anglavia. Its people live within a sinister mist created by their rulers, the cruel Agromond family. The Agromonds' control is absolute; no one dares defy them. But things are about to change, for the youngest of them is not like the others...Fiery-headed Jemma has always felt like the family misfit, and is increasingly disturbed by the dark goings-on at Agromond Castle. The night before her thirteenth birthday, Jemma discovers the terrifying reason why: She is not who she thinks she is, and the Agromonds have a dreadful ritual planned for her birthday—a ritual that could kill her.But saving her skin is just the first of Jemma's ordeals. Ghosts and outcasts, a pair of crystals, a mysterious book, an ancient Prophecy—all these gradually reveal the truth about her past, and a destiny far greater and more dangerous than any she could imagine.With her trusted friend, Digby, and her two telepathic golden rats, Noodle and Pie, Jemma faces enemies both human and supernatural. But in the end, she and her untapped powers might be the only hope for a kingdom in peril.How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?
I first came across the seed of my main character, Jemma, at a workshop where we were each asked to summarize the essence of our childhood as a fairy tale—quickly, without too much thinking—in one paragraph.
What leapt to my mind was the isolation I’d felt as a small child living in a large house outside a village and having very little daily contact with non-family kids until I went to school.
So the Once Upon a Time that splurged onto my page was about this castle on a hill miles from anywhere and the girl who dreamed of escaping…
Fast forward several years, and that castle morphed into Agromond Castle, the opening setting of The Flame in the Mist, where Jemma is effectively held prisoner—isolated, and longing to see the world beyond its walls. To flesh her out, I used an exercise learned in my first ever writing class (with Gotham Writers Workshop
in New York City): scribbling down a list of characteristics as quickly as possible, with no forethought or editing. A lot of that list became part of who Jemma is, including: headstrong, stubborn, loves anagrams, loves food, has prophetic dreams, can communicate with animals, has pet rats. A mix of myself (I adore playing word games, and food…), and some not. (Rats? I hated them—that is, until I created Noodle and Pie.)
Later, it amazed me how much that list also fed the book’s themes. Jemma’s prophetic dreams, for example, became central. A more obscure one was her love of anagrams. At first, it was a quirk that offered some fun opportunities for foreshadowing (at one point, seeing her family’s motto, Agromondus Supremus, her head spins out the words grand, groan, mouse, demons . . . ), but I had no idea how important it would become until toward the very end, when an idea emerged about solving anagrams being vital to her mission—and survival.
Who’d have thought….anagrams, as integral to the plot? Not me.
In creating Jemma’s antagonists, the Agromonds—parents Nox and Nocturna and their twins Shade and Feo—I also used the list exercise.
To begin with, though, they were too one-dimensionally evil, so my editor suggested I write back stories for them. Each was like a mini-novella of about 10 pages long, written much like those first lists of traits, with no forethought, no editing. I did, however, start with the question “What ghosts haunt this character?”—literally, and/or psychologically. (Not my idea, but I’m afraid I don’t remember where I got it from, so can’t credit its origin.)
That gave the stories a sharp and delicious focus, and the details that surged up from my subconscious surprised and thrilled me. I’d literally gasp and say things like, “So that’s why Nox has such a soft spot for Jemma!” and “That’s why Shade is afraid of rats!” Until then, I’d had no idea—though evidently the dark corners of my mind did.How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?
I’ve been putting more effort into connecting with local bookstores and libraries and applying for book festivals. The personal side of things always felt more tangible and straightforward to me. But the Internet as promotional tool was a huge unknown.
Around January of last year, my book deal was signed and I knew it was time to get my online chops together. I had a personal profile on Facebook, but that was about it. I didn’t get Twitter at all. So, where to begin?
Fortunately for me, last year’s New York SCBWI conference
offered a one-day marketing workshop. Thank you, SCBWI! That workshop truly kick-started my efforts.
I turned up knowing practically nothing. By the end of the day, my head was bulging with new concepts. It would take time and patience to absorb what I’d learned, but I’d made a start.
The workshop covered a number of aspects: social media—mainly Twitter (@kitgrindstaff
) and Facebook
—as well as blogging, branding, making book trailers (I’d never heard of them, but now have one on YouTube (see below)), and the importance of a killer website—for middle grade authors, the most important hub of online presence.
The latter was easiest to wrap my head around. One of the workshop presenters was a website designer whose work I loved: Maddee James of Xuni.com
. I already knew I wanted to work with her, so I introduced myself. Step one, taken. Not so bad.
About social media and blogging, every presenter stressed only to take it on if you enjoy it—a duff online presence being worse than none at all. That was comforting. I immediately let myself off the blogging hook for the moment; but I loved Facebook, so could easily conceive of creating a page for my author presence in addition to my personal profile—a distinction I hadn’t yet made.
Twitter was still mind-boggling to me: more narcissistic garbage and tiresome self-promotion polluting the cyber-waves, I thought. But the Twitter presenter reframed it completely. Self-promotion should be the least of it, she said. We should follow people who genuinely interested us, and engage in conversations. Be authentic. Promote others, who would in turn promote us.Et voila!
The crux of Twitter’s potential: a community of like-minded individuals reaching out to connect with each other, rather than a cacophonous, competitive squabble. I loved that idea.
After that, I took to it like a bird to the sky. Honing to 140 characters was awkward at first, but that soon came. Not knowing what to tweet, I signed up for Google feeds about kidlit, posting links to articles I enjoyed reading—which, evidently, others did too, as that always brought new followers. I soon grasped how many people out there are ready and willing to help.
I love supporting others, and receiving it back. Book bloggers, fellow writers, readers…we’re a community. And for me, community is key.
Once I was out there, things began to happen.
For example, about a month into tweeting, I received a tweet from an author belonging to a group called The Lucky 13s
—kidlit authors debuting in 2013. She’d come across my profile, and saw that I was also debuting in ’13.
“Hop on over to the blog and join us!” she said.
So I did.
That one tweet changed my life. The sense of companionship and support in the Luckies is terrific. We share concerns and excitement, and our (private) proboards are a fabulous resource for ideas—swag, cover reveals, attending conferences and fairs, you name it. There’s a Luckies blog
, with group blogs—perfect for a not-quite-blogging-yet person like me. I can’t imagine what navigating the road to publication would have been like without them. More scary, for sure, and not nearly as much fun, with a fraction of the opportunities.
So to new and upcoming authors, I’d say, Connect, connect, connect. If you need to learn the ropes, go to workshops, or research online. With social media, there’s many to choose from: Tumblr, Pinterest and Goodreads are other options.
Go with what feels right; if you don’t enjoy it, it’s hard to put the time in. But if something feels a little awkward or difficult at first, at least try it, stay with it for a while and see what happens. Take it slowly, find a way to approach it playfully. “The web” is a great image to keep in mind, with its mass of interconnections. You never know where following one thread can lead.