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!

One of the perks to my gig as Fiction Editor at YARN is working with some established authors. We approach published YA authors routinely and ask if we can shake a story out of them. Or an essay. Or a poem. It’s wonderful to publish teenage and emerging writers alongside big-name authors, and YARN is the only YA lit mag that does this.

Last Spring, we caught a big one: Ned Vizzini. I remember dancing around the kitchen and crowing about how I’d get to work with Ned Vizzini!! (While my husband, who is not knee-deep n the trenches of YA-land, stared at me blankly: Who?) I loved Ned’s 2006 novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, amazed by the power of its voice. I was also excited about his upcoming House of Secrets series with Chris Columbus, which in a few short years my own son might be ready to read.

Ned had written a short story for adults, called “Strike a Chord,” which he thought might work for YARN. The characters were a bit old for our market (twenties) but Kerri Majors, Lourdes Keochgerien and I thought it could be reworked and the characters aged down a little. That voice — that voice — we wanted that voice! And the theme of the story — finding just one good  idea, and finding space to create your art even under constraining circumstances — we were sure that would resonate with our teen readers. (Not to mention our adult readers! Don’t we all just crave one good idea?)

I passed along our suggestions for how the story might work for YARN. Ned was more than willing to roll up his sleeves and give it a go. He took some of our suggestions and ran with them, and then came up with other clever solutions we hadn’t dreamed of. The best of the original story was preserved, now pitch-perfect for YA readers. We did a round or two of light edits and published “Strike a Chord” in April.

I never met Ned in person, but in our email correspondence I was struck by his kindness, his creative energy, his willingness to see his story in new ways. As a big-name author he could have had a big attitude, and he simply didn’t. When I contacted him several weeks ago about an SCBWI Magazine Award nomination, he responded right away (as always), saying how honored he was that we thought of him. I could not have imagined the extent to which he still struggled from depression, or that a few weeks later he would take his own life.

Based on the volume of lovely tributes to Ned Vizzini that are zipping around the internet in the wake of his passing this week, my experience is very typical. (My favorite tribute is this one by my friend Kristen Kittscher, who did meet him it’s a really great story of Ned’s generosity toward fellow writers, especially debut authors).

In case you missed it the first time around, I’d like to share with you Ned’s story for YARN, “Strike a Chord,” and I hope it strikes a chord with you too.

PS. Depression is a real illness, for which there is help. We all have something important to offer the world.  If you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed, reach out to someone. Know the signs of depression and please seek help if you need it. Reach out. If you are in crisis, or need help finding a therapist, visit the website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or You Matter (for young adults), or call them at 1-800-273-TALK.

I rarely write poems. Okay, I never do. I used to, many years ago, and I don’t know what happened, why the poetry ideas dried up. I love reading poems, but I think somewhere along the way my ideas started talking to me in full-on sentences, and paragraphs appeared before my eyes rather than stanzas. I’m not known for brevity, and I usually feel constrained when I impose a structure.

But I’m so inspired by my fellow YARN editor Kate Burak’s poetry prompts this month, I just can’t help myself. Plus my other fellow editor Kerri Majors wrote a cool poem today, which you can read here. So I’m rolling up my sleeves today and actually writing a poem! I think for those of us writing stories and novels, it’s a great exercise to try a different form of writing now and then.

Before I plunge in, let me tell you about how YARN (Young Adult Review Network) is celebrating National Poetry Month. We’re running a poem-a-day project. There are prompts on the YARN website for every day of the month. Every Monday you’ll find seven prompts, one for each day of the week. Today is Day 3. It’s not too late! We’d love to see people’s results and encourage you to share your prompt-inspired poems with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.Tag your Twitter and Tumblr poems with the hashtag #NPMYARN. For Facebook, tag YARN!

Okay, here’s today’s prompt:
Write directions for preparing food.  The food can be simple (a glass of rain) or outrageous (cooking the world’s last antelope)—you decide.

Oh no. Anxiety. Not only do I not write poetry, I do not cook.

Wait a second. I did cook yesterday — it was my son’s birthday and I attempted to make him a cake. I even took pictures of the process. Hmm. Ingredients for a poem in all of that? Maybe? Here goes!


When I take my son’s birthday cake out of the oven,
I nearly drop it in horror.
The cake has sprouted a full set of lips
that seem to smile at me,
or leer,
and narrowed eyes,
You cannot cook, the cake breathes,
emitting a tendril of steam.
You have walked the earth this many years,
become a mother,
and until today,
 you have never made a round cake?
Not even from a box? 
You hold an advanced degree
and you cannot follow five simple steps of directions?

The cake’s pockmarked face shifts and settles
and sighs
as I set the pan on the counter.
The lips protrude into a pout.
Then the corners of the mouth curl up.
I am torn between
immediately sending a picture to a tabloid magazine
(“The Virgin Mary’s face is in my cake!”)
and making a million dollars —
or throwing it in the trash before my son sees this aberration
and is scarred for life.

I opt for the heavy concealer.
I slather on frosting, working fast,
while the cake’s uneven surface heaves beneath
my frantic spatula.

I think of all the childhood cakes my parents bought me
with their neat round shapes,
their even layers,
their perfectly coiled confection roses,
their slight whiff of supermarket refrigerator case,
and I think
yes, that was the way.

I cover up every last bit of the cake,
and all the stress that went into its making —
the skipped step, the out-of-order step,
the incorrect measurement,
the eternal feeling of not measuring up
on the motherhood meter —
and throw handfuls of candy at it when I’m done.

Later that evening,
my son admires the cake,
blows out the candles,
and eats it with both hands,
and my husband says,
“How many kids are so lucky
to have a homemade cake?”

I smile and shrug,
as if I made cakes like this all the time,
as if the cake concealed
no secrets.

Here’s some news . . . I’ve taken on a new job as of this month, exchanging my writing hat for an editing hat! (I like to change hats every once in awhile. Even though hats make my hair look terrible, and really I don’t look good in any hats at all).

Anyway. I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined the awesome team at YARN (Young Adult Review Network) as their new Fiction Editor. YARN is an award-winning online magazine dedicated to short-form writing for young adults. YARN features short stories, poems, and essays, publishing teen writers alongside emerging and established authors.

My friend and fellow YA novelist Kathryn Burak (author of the Edgar-nominated Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things) has also just joined, as the new Poetry Editor. You can read the news item about us here.

I first discovered YARN a couple of years ago when I was looking for markets for short YA fiction. There weren’t that many. YARN, founded by Kerri Majors, was among the first to emerge online. A few more YA magazines have come out recently, but there are still not as many publications as there are for adult short fiction. And with an Innovations in Reading Award from the National Book Foundation, YARN has quickly established itself as a leader in this publishing sector. As both a reader and a former contributor to this magazine, I’m thrilled and honored to be part of this dynamic team.

I’m enjoying this dip back into short fiction, too. I’ve written and read short stories for as long as I can remember. Short stories taught me to become a writer. Writing stories for literary magazines in college and after taught me a lot about storytelling, as well as working with editors. I still love the satisfaction I get from reading — or writing — a story in compressed form. I love how great stories stand up to rereading and can offer fresh insights each time. I love the tiny windows into other people’s experiences that short stories can give us. And I believe we need MORE short stories for YA readers.

It’s also fun to wear the editing hat again. I worked as an editor for many years, in educational publishing, before focusing on writing novels. Editing involves a different kind of creative process; I can almost feel different muscles in my brain working. And getting involved with an innovative, energetic magazine, with some freedom to develop my own ideas, is a wonderful opportunity.

What’s your yarn? We’re looking for great YA stories, so if you have one up your sleeve and are interested in submitting, please do! You can read about YARN’s submission guidelines here. (Please submit through the YARN website).

And finally, if you’re going to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Boston next week — or even if you’re just in the area — you’re welcome to come hang out with me and my fellow YARN editors, Kerri Majors and Kathryn Burak! We’ll be at the YA Publishing Cocktail Party, sponsored by Paper Lantern Lit, along with folks from Figment, Sucker Literary Magazine, and other YA-themed publications. YARN will be running a cool contest too, with copies of Tokyo Heist and Emily’s Dress among the prizes. We’re still nailing down some details, so check the YARN website or Twitter feed (@YAReviewNet) for more info in the coming days!

The cocktail party is free, but RSVP is required. Click here for details and the RSVP info. (Also, attendees must be 21+ — sorry!!) Would love to see you there!

Have you heard about Tomo? It’s one of my most anticipated Spring reads. Tomo is an anthology of Young Adult short fiction, verse, and graphic art, all set in or related to Japan. It releases 3/11/12, the anniversary of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster. Proceeds from the book sales support long-term relief efforts for Japanese teens, in the regions most affected by these events.

The word tomo means “friendship,” and I love editor Holly Thompson’s concept of “sharing friendship through fiction.” The thirty-six authors and artists come from all over the world, united by their connection to Japan. Ten of the works are in translation.

You can learn more about the book, including its contributors and the organizations it supports, on the Tomo blog.

Also, the online literary journal YARN (Young Adult Review Network) is offering an exclusive sneak peak at one of the stories! Stop by and check out this wonderful story, “Love Right on the Yesterday,” by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga.

Do you have a favorite Japanese author, or a favorite novel, story, or movie that’s set in Japan?