Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


So last week I participated in the My Writing Process Blog Tour (you can read my post here if you missed it), and as promised, this week, right here on this blog, I’m hosting the fabulous Erin Cashman as part of the same tour! (And be sure to check out the other stop on the blog tour today, as my YARN co-editor Kerri Majors talks about her writing process too!)

Erin Cashman is the author of THE EXCEPTIONALS (Holiday House, 2012), which was named a Bankstreet College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. It was one of my favorite books from 2012. I love the way that the main character, Claire, struggles with perceiving herself as average amidst extraordinary family members and peers, and I love how she discovers her powerful gift of understanding the thoughts of animals. (A gift I secretly wish I had!) This book is a paranormal story crossed with a suspenseful mystery, and I definitely love a good mystery! 

Here’s a bit more about her enchanting novel:
Born into a famous family of exceptionally talented people, fifteen-year-old Claire Walker has deliberately chosen to live an average life. But everything changes the night of the Spring Fling, when her parents decide it’s high time she transferred to Cambial Academy–the prestigious boarding school that her great-grandfather founded for students with supernatural abilities. Despite her attempts to blend in, Claire stands out at Cambial simply because she is normal. But unbeknownst to her new friends, she has a powerful gift she considers too lame to admit. Suddenly, the most talented students in school the Exceptionals begin to disappear. In an attempt to find out what happened to them, Claire comes across a prophecy foretelling a mysterious girl who will use her ability to save Cambial students from a dire fate. Could she be that girl? Claire decides there is only one way to find out: she must embrace her ability once and for all.
Finally, since this is a writing process blog tour we’re on, I should mention Erin is a HUGE part of my own writing process! Not only is she a member of my in-person writing group, but also she has been an amazing critique partner at very early stages of my process. Erin and I swap pages almost weekly. We provide encouragement and highlight red flags to watch out for, and talk through plot snafus. I don’t think I would have drafted my current project so quickly had it not been for Erin, so THANK YOU ERIN!
And now, here’s Erin, in her own words!

I’ve been invited by YA mystery author Diana Renn to be part of the My Writing Process blog tour. I loved Diana’s book, TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, 2012) It’s about a sixteen-year-old girl, Violet, who finds herself and her father involved in a high stakes mystery involving stolen art that puts their very lives at risk. Violet must travel from Seattle to Japan, and the twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat! Fans of manga, art, Japan, and complex mysteries will love it! I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy of her new book, LATITUDE ZERO, which comes out this July, and I could not put it down! You can read more about her right here, on her blog! Thanks for hosting me, Diana!
What are you working on?
I’m just finishing a middle grade fantasy novel. It’s a contemporary story rooted in Celtic myth, which also draws from the King Arthur legend. I guess it’s appropriate that I am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day! My mom was born in Galway, Ireland, and I fell in love with Ireland when I visited, especially all of the stories and legends. So much to inspire a fantasy author! After that is finished I am turning back to YA fantasies. I have two story ideas that I am deciding between. Both involve mystery, suspense and romance.
YA author Erin Cashman
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
There are so many excellent middle grade and YA fantasy novels being published today. I love that readers have so many books to choose from! I have not really thought about this before, but as I did I realized that all of my characters have an insider-outsider perspective. They are part of something, but don’t feel like they belong. In THE EXCEPTIONALS (Holiday House, 2012), Claire is from a family of people that have special abilities.  And yet, because her ability (understanding the thoughts of animals) is unique and very difficult to demonstrate, eventually she lies about having it and lives a life away from Cambial Academy, the school her great-grandfather founded to teach other teens with these “specials”. When circumstances force her back to Cambial, she is part of that world, but doesn’t feel like she belongs. In my middle grade fantasy, my main character, a thirteen-year-old boy is part of a secret world, but he doesn’t know it. And yet he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.
Why do you write what you do?
I love reading and writing fantasy novels, and I always have. I remember reading Lord of the Rings in ninth grade, and being completely swept up into the world of middle earth. There is magic in leaving your own worries and escaping into the pages of a fantasy novel. I hope that my readers are able to experience that with my books. I also remember clearly feeling like an outsider at times, and not feeling like I belonged as a teen. I think that’s why my protagonists also grapple with that. Of course, they are much stronger and braver than I was!
How does your writing process work?
An idea usually just hits me out of the blue – on a walk or a drive, or while I’m trying to fall asleep at night. And then as I think about it, a character starts to quickly come to me, and usually a scene plays out in my head. As soon as I can, I take notes, and then I write the scene. For THE EXCEPTIONALS it was when Dylan came out from the woods, and the reader doesn’t know if he is bad or good. At that point, Claire and I didn’t either! But I had to just write it down. Even though the scene is in the second half of the book, it’s the first words that I wrote.  After that, I brainstorm.  A LOT. I take walks and long drives. I talk about it to anyone who will listen – fellow authors (thank you Diana!), friends, my family.  I wonder why my main character is angry, or frightened. How did she get to that scene that I imagined?  What does she want?  What happens afterwards?  I take a lot of notes. I also make a huge poster board of characters. I cut out a picture of what I think he or she looks like, and I describe their personality. I also write pages of character sketches in a note book I keep just for that project. I divide it into sections: characters, plot and setting (I draw really bad maps and diagrams for this one!). In between, I write down scenes that come to me, that just sort of pester me in my head until I do – all out of order. As I write the draft I try not to edit myself. I go back and revise as I go, but I don’t edit my ideas. I write things that seem crazy, knowing I can cut it later. Then, when I’m done, I put it away for a few weeks, read it again, and then outline the book. It is not a very efficient way to write, but it’s the only way I can!

If you follow this tour, every Monday you can read about different writers’ processes and their current works in progress. (It is so great to read about how others write. I often pick up an idea or two that helps me!) Each participant tags two or three new writers, and we all answer the same set of questions. So next Monday, on March 24, you can read about YA fantasy author Lisa Amowitz. I adored her novel, BREAKING GLASS, and can’t wait to read more about her next novel, VISION, coming out this September!

And next Tuesday, March 25, you can read about Martina Boone, whose debut novel, COMPULSION, will be published October 2014. I can’t wait to read more about this darkly romantic, southern gothic YA novel! Read all about it in her blog, AdventuresInYAPublishing

Thanks again for hosting me, Diana!


You’re welcome, Erin! And be sure to check out another poster on the My Writing Process Blog Tour today: Kerri Majors, ed-in-chief of YARN and author of THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL (Writer’s Digest Books, 2013). You can find Kerri’s blog tour post, right now, right here

There’s nothing like a writing assignment to shake the dust off the old blog!

I’ve been invited by fellow kidlit mystery writer Julia Platt London to be part of the My Writing Process blog tour. I loved Julia’s intense, fast-paced, high-stakes middle grade mystery, COLD CASE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2012). It’s about a 13-year-old boy who stumbles across a dead body and soon discovers his brother is a prime suspect and his father may be implicated too.  It takes place in New Mexico and has great restaurant scenes, too — do check it out! If you’d like to learn more about Julia’s book — and the one now in the works — you can check out her Writing Process Blog Tour post here.

What are you working on? 
I am wrapping up a draft of my third YA mystery! This one is called BLUE VOYAGE, and if I can make my deadlines (!!), it will hopefully be out Summer 2015 (Viking/Penguin). It’s about a teen girl vacationing in Turkey, who gets entangled with an international gang of antiquities smugglers. Unlike the other two books, which both started in the U.S. and took us to another country, this one takes place entirely in Turkey. I’ve traveled there before, and loved it; I’m having a wonderful time revisiting journals and photos, and eating at a Turkish restaurant near my home! (Hey, eating can be research, right?)

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
There are so many great YA mysteries out there; I feel like the genre has just exploded. There is now mystery + paranormal, mystery + high fantasy, mystery + history, mystery + sci fi. . . . and of course good old fashioned straight-up mystery. I write contemporary mystery. No magic!

I do think that YA mystery has come a long way from Nancy Drew, and that readers more in the way of character development and sub plots. They expect that the sleuth will grow or change as a result of solving this mystery (unlike Nancy, who just bounces from adventure to adventure and doesn’t develop). I think my work is in line with this trend, of striving for more complex and realistic characters — despite an awareness that the mystery situations may not be entirely realistic (simply because most regular kids don’t get into the jams that my characters do). So complex and realistic characters make my mysteries different from the traditional Nancy Drew, but right in line with what most YA mystery authors are trying to do, I think.

But I think what makes my work different from many YA mysteries on the market right now is the element of international intrigue. All of my mysteries involve a journey. Actually a double journey: into another place and culture, and into the self as well. I also think my mysteries are complex. The plots are intricate. They’re super hard to write, but very satisfying to complete, and I hope readers enjoy solving the puzzles too.

Why do you write what you do?
I write YA because I feel like I never really lost touch with my teen self. And as a teen, I was acutely sensitive to injustices (both perceived and real). So my teen sleuths in my books are very interested in righting wrongs and calling out hypocritical or unethical behavior on the part of adults. They also sometimes struggle to be heard or taken seriously by adults, as I think I did at times, and I love giving my teen characters the voice, the sense of purpose, and the inner strength that I wished I had had more of as a teen.  I love putting teen characters into conflicts and making them confront people who bug them or deal with their emotions. It’s like I get a bunch of do-overs when I write these books.

I also write books involving travel because so many teens travel the world these days — unlike when I was a teen — and I am awestruck by this. I am also aware that many teens do NOT travel the world (because they lack the funds, or are working, or caring for families, etc.) So these books are also for the vicarious travelers, which is what I was as a teen, and I hope it will inspire them to travel when they are able.

How does your writing process work?
It’s really messy, despite my organized intentions starting out. When planning a book, I do a lot of preliminary research. I brainstorm intensely. I fill up about two whole notebooks, writing notes by hand, before I start writing in earnest. I need at least 3 months of planning and incubation before writing that first chapter. I write freely about things I find in my research that interest me, that might go into a book. I write notes about the main characters, which I title “Things I Know” — just little realizations that hit me at odd times, that help a complex person start to take shape on the page. I usually have some false starts with beginnings. At least five. I get some preliminary feedback from trusted readers on those false starts. Then I usually find my way into the book. I block out key plot points and conflicts in scenes in all caps, and then write over them in “real writing.” I usually block out two or three scenes and then write. After every 30-50 pages I let myself look back and revise, and then I go forward again. If I get stuck, I find looking back helps because I usually need to go “deeper” with a character, or explore a conflict more. I can’t make it through a whole draft without doing some revising along the way. I hate drafting. I hate staring into the abyss, and I get paralyzed with possibilities. So much of writing is about making decisions (which I’m also bad at — don’t ask me to choose a restaurant). I am a big reviser!

If you follow this tour, every Monday you can read about different writers’ processes and their current works in progress. (I’m kind of addicted to these things! I love hearing about how other people work). Each participant tags two or three new writers, and we all answer the same set of questions. So following me next Monday, 3/17, will be two YA authors. One is Kerri Majors, who is the founder and editor in chief at YARN (Young Adult Review Network) and the author of THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL (Writer’s Digest Books, 2013), a guide for young writers. The other writer is Erin Cashman, author of THE EXCEPTIONALS (Holiday House, 2012), which a Bankstreet Best Children’s Book award winner! I’ll be hosting Erin’s blog tour post right here on THIS blog, as a guest post. Be sure to swing back here next Monday to meet Erin, and I’ll link to Kerri’s post here as well!

ARCs of LATITUDE ZERO are here! My editor snapped this picture of them shrouded in mystery, beneath racing numbers that show the publication date. (Many thanks to the talented Renee Combs for designing the numbers!)

ARCs at the starting line! On your marks, get set . . .

These galley copies are now starting their journey out into the world, making their way to reviewers and to booksellers. As a writer, this is the part where it can feel hard to let go. It’s scary — there are still some corrections to be made, proof pages to review. But it’s exciting, too. The book looks and feels like a real book, as opposed to a mess of papers and Post-its and computer files. It’s time to let go and let it find its readers. I hope it is well-stretched and hydrated. I wish it well.

A box of ARCs arrived at my house this weekend, too, and here’s what they look like without the racing numbers:

Latitude Zero ARCs! Looking like a real book!

I’m so happy with the book design — it’s so creative! The designer, Kate Renner, superimposed a bike wheel on the cover. The crowd scene in Quito, Ecuador conveys and mystery and international intrigue. Kate also turned the book spine into a road, reflecting the book’s bike racing context. You can’t see it well in this picture, but black pages divide the book into Parts 1 and 2, resembling the equatorial line that is also a significant part of the story. There are lots of other cool things in the book design, from how the pages numbers are laid out to a recurring graphic on the bottom of the page. Book design is a fascinating art, and I’m just in awe of all the attention to detail.

Here are some scenes of what the book looked like before galleys — you can see that it’s come a long way!

Winter 2012-13: a book in process!
A draft in process – aerial view
Latitude Zero climbing the walls! (This is a system of matching scenes to settings)
LATITUDE ZERO creeps into my husband’s shopping list! (I get a lot of ideas on the whiteboard in our kitchen)
LATITUDE ZERO at the beach! I keep 6-8 notebooks per novel; here’s a working notebook plus manuscript pages in revision.
LATITUDE ZERO on a family vacation! (Loose leaf pages on a windy beach not so practical….)
An early manuscript draft of LATITUDE ZERO – a year ago just the sight of these stacked-up pages was a huge thrill!

I’m back from a little blogging break! I’ve been focused on a work-in-progress as well as some fun promotional things for Tokyo Heist that are in the works. And I’ve been dealing with a conundrum on the home front.

I generally resist writing about my child on this blog, or parenting in general, partly because I’m not sure how much it interests my readers and mainly because my blog is an escape hatch for me, a place where I can just think about books and writing and art.

But occasionally Life just can’t be filtered, so I’ll share the problem that’s eating at me. 

My son is soon to turn five. He is starstruck fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alvin CDs have been in constant play on my car CD player since December. We’ve seen all the movies. He even, though somewhat grudgingly, likes the Chipettes. Believe it or not, I used to have a son with some musical taste. He listened to CDs like “Jazz for Babies.” He went through an Afro-Cuban phase, around age two, which we all enjoyed. And then he discovered the Chipmunks, and life has not been the same.

This isn’t the problem I’m facing, though. I’m actually learning to live with the Chipmunks. I’ve found clothing and hats to disguise the tail and small ears I am sprouting. I don’t really get out much these days, so I find I can keep my high-pitched squeaky voice pretty much a secret (though now you all know).

The problem is he has his heart set on a birthday cake that would feature Alvin, Simon, and Theodore — AND the three Chipettes — riding in a green sports car with the top down and their “hair” blowing in the breeze. (“Hair” is in quotes because it’s really just little tufts on top of their heads. Chipmunks don’t have real hair. Silly!) For some reason, this vision of loveliness has appeared to him, perhaps in a dream, and he is convinced that this is the cake he Must Have.

This from a boy who doesn’t even EAT cake. He takes two bites, if that. He’s an ice-cream guy.

The last three birthday cakes, from our local bakery, were all the same: a red and yellow racecar. My son was deep into cars for ages, and despite my requests to change the car design each year, we kept getting the same car design from this particular bakery — the decorator, it seems, does not have a wide repertoire of designs. So, happy not to have the usual plain racecar request this year — happy he’s been diversifying his interests over the past year — I went to our local bakery, shared my son’s vision, brought in pictures, and asked what they could do.

The girl behind the counter looked shell-shocked. The baker shook her head. No chipmunks. No way. They could, however, do a red shirt, like Alvin wears, and some musical notes. I settled for that. Then I told my son what the cake design would look like, as he’s not a big fan of surprises.

The switch did not meet his design specifications. The image of a lonely, chipmunkless shirt actually made him burst into tears. As did the concept of Alvin without his brothers. I asked for alternative ideas. Simpler ones.

“How about the cars from Dr. Seuss? From the Lorax? Those are fun,” he said cheerfully, wiping his eyes.

“They are. But they’re pretty hard to do in cake frosting. And we’re having a rock-n-roll party, remember?”

“Oh. How about an electric guitar? With sparks flying out of it?”

“Better. But maybe not the sparks?”

“Wait. I’ve got it. Transformers, in a battle!”

I tried to show simpler cake photos online. I showed a YouTube video of how a cake decorator squeezes frosting from a tube. I explained the concepts of “simple” and “complicated.” Usually he listens to information like this and comes around, but this time he could not be persuaded that his cake visions were impossible to execute. And the fact is, they are NOT impossible. A high-end cake decorator would rise to these challenges. For a fee. But I’m not willing to invest in that for preschoolers. Who do not actually eat the cake.

We’ve been hotly debating cake decoration for a week now, and where we left it this morning was with him sighing and saying “Fine, let’s just get the same racecar.” Well, that bothers me too. It feels like giving up. There must be some creative solution, something simple yet feasible, that we haven’t hit on.

Now maybe most parents — sensible parents — would just buy a simple cake from the grocery store and be done with it. I don’t recall my own parents ever asking me for cake design input. Cakes appeared, and were eaten, end of story. And maybe other parents — cooking parents — would make a cake and tackle the design themselves. But I’m a horrible cook — I can actually screw up cake mix from a box — and have no cake design talent. I know because I once worked in a bakery, in high school, and my shortcomings as a baker were glaring, especially when I accidentally sold the model cakes out of the display case, not knowing the frosting designs were actually covering Styrofoam.

Then it dawned on me this morning that I am so caught up in this cake dilemma because — watch out, writing metaphor coming! — it hits a nerve related to my own creative issues.

I too get grandiose visions of what is possible in a story and refuse to admit impossibility. There’s no room for all these characters. They can’t go to place X and Y and Z. These subplots are too complicated. Hyperventilation usually follows. Then sheer determination. There has to be a way! I WILL make it happen!

Sometimes the effort alone makes me see that a story really is too crowded, that a subplot or character must go. But I have to go through the effort first. And sometimes multiple efforts lead to creative solutions. Maybe characters who are similar can actually combine. Maybe they don’t go to place X, Y, or Z but to a different place altogether. Maybe a scene can do double or triple duty, working on several levels, and I don’t need three scenes after all. A little cutting, trimming, reshaping, moving flowers around — a design is taking shape.

But then it collapses; maybe the design looks OK but there’s a flaw in the cake structure, or the basic ingredients. Too much flour or too little. And I try again. And that’s where I’m at with my work-in-progress. Reshaping, rebuilding, making those painstaking decisions. Piece of cake? Not really. Many hours of work. But hopefully worth it in the end. If I’d given up on my design with Tokyo Heist when I was most afraid of incorporating many different elements, I wouldn’t have had the finished product I have today.

So I’m torn between teaching my son to lower his expectations and be realistic versus encouraging his wildly creative ideas and teaching him ways to make them happen. Ways that don’t involve my shelling out fifty bucks or more.

So . . . how do you make artistic decisions about how much to include in a story or other work of art? Do you tend to overwrite and need to pare down, or do you underwrite and need to develop? 

And does anyone know a good, cheap cake decorator in the greater Boston area?