Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

February Meeting: Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

What could be more fitting for our February meeting than hearing Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018) author, Cynthia Leitich Smith speak about the tough questions we must ask ourselves when crafting romance novels, and other stories?

What can we ask ourselves that will create a strong foundation on which to build a story? Consider the following:

Early Novel-Writing Questions:

-What is this story about? Not plot summary, but rather what is the core of the story that draws in the reader? One example of a core topic: “can we separate the artist from the art, or the speaker from the speech?” In this case, think about intent versus impact (nuanced and complicated)—“have you ever hurt anyone with your own speech [words]?”

 -Why tell this story now? Perhaps you are writing about an ongoing emotional journey? Are you trying to reflect this moment in time? An initial spark can light the way, even years later.

 -Is this my story to tell? Do I have a passion for this story? Or, shall I “pass” on certain projects? What’s my commitment to the research? Just because a project presents itself does not mean I want to do it. It might be too emotionally draining, not a current interest, or not the right timing to tell a particular story, either personally or in a larger context. Don’t worry that your story is not “important enough” to tell.

 -Who else does this story belong to? As a rule, ask permission first. Obtaining express written permission is best. For example, when writing a character based on an ex-boyfriend, I asked in advance for his blessing/veto.

 -How will this story fit in the conversation of books? (And how will it affect young readers?)  Goals may be to challenge, inform, inspire and make young readers think, but at the same time always to “do no harm” to these youth.

 -How factual should this story be? Story characters may be loosely based upon reality. They may have experiences in common, but be different. Be careful when using the internet for fact checking. There can be misrepresented material, misquotes, and outright lies on the internet; do not trust the internet. Instead, try to locate and utilize original sources of information.

 -What do I need to find out or research? Ask yourself: What must I learn? What do I need to read or watch? Do I need to travel? Who do I need to talk to? Always prepare first. You might need to read multiple books on the subject to prepare for your story. Be sure to study other writers and survey the market.

 -How should I tell this story? Ask yourself: What do I need to leave in or take out? What’s the approach? (For example, Hearts Unbroken has a journalistic and literary approach.) What’s the style or structure? Create a file for back matter. Be a sensitivity reader and steer away from cliches and stereotypes.

-What are my writing craft gaps? For example, rather than simply wondering: will they or won’t they “get together,” I might want to consider if the characters will be redeemed. Always revise, revise, revise.

 -How will writing this story affect me? Some series may take 18 years (writing about pharaohs, for instance.) So, ask yourself if this is what you want to do. Some authors may realize a topic is something they need to plan for, or that a topic is emotionally taxing and therefore best saved for another person to write, or for another time.

 Romance Craft Questions:

 -Is it love at first connection? For example, in All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was it “insta-lust” or a “slow build?”

 -Is it a love triangle or another configuration? Maybe it is a quadrangle! “…a love triangle done right isn’t about a character’s affections bouncing around…It’s about their internal struggle as they figure out who they want to be and what’s important to them.”

-What do the leads like about each other?

 -Are they irresistibly imperfect or endearing? Hopefully they are! Do they have “staying power?” For example, Bridget Jones’ Diary has four movies worth of staying power.

 -Do they express their attraction physically? (In romantic scenes)

            -What rings true to these characters? (In the relationship, situation or setting)

            -How will you frame dynamics around consent?

            -How will you incorporate faith, or not? (What role will faith-based beliefs play?)

            -What about birth control/protection?

            -How about adolescent awkwardness?

 -How about the whole heart?

            -What else is going on?

            -What’s happening with friends/family/community/society?

            -What’s happening that’s not about others?

            -How do they feel about themselves?

Always “remember the memory or dream that compelled you to the page.”

As a mentor once said, “I won’t always be the same writer I am today.”

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times best-selling YA author of HEARTS UNBROKEN and both the FERAL trilogy and TANTALIZE series. These novels were released by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, and additional publishers around the globe. She also is the author of several award-winning children’s books, including: JINGLE DANCER, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, and INDIAN SHOES, all published by HarperCollins. In addition, she has published short stories, nonfiction essays, and poetry for young readers.