Choose Your Own Adventure!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Write a “choose your own adventure”-style story. That is, start writing your story, but when you get to a point where your main character has to make a decision, first continue the story with the character making one choice (up to the point where another decision has to be made), then go back to the fork in the road and write the story with the character making a different choice.

Pick at least three points in your story where it could go in two or more directions and write each of the versions.

A simple version of this exercise would go something like this, and result in eight different versions of the story:

  • Original story 📝 at the first fork, choose A or B.
    • A story 📝 at the second fork, choose C or D.
      • C story 📝 at the third fork, choose G or H.
        • G story 📝 continue to the end.
        • H story 📝 continue to the end.
      • D story 📝 at the third fork, choose I or J.
        • I story 📝 continue to the end.
        • J story 📝 continue to the end.
    • B story 📝 at the second fork, choose E or F.
      • E story 📝 at the third fork, choose K or L.
        • K story 📝 continue to the end.
        • L story 📝 continue to the end.
      • F story 📝 at the third fork, choose M or N.
        • M story 📝 continue to the end.
        • N story 📝 continue to the end.

Of course, stories can get more complicated than this, with more options and storylines backtracking and crisscrossing on each other. Play around and have fun with it.

While a choose-your-own-adventure story can be meant to be read as-is, this is also a good exercise for exploring your options when working through the plot of a longer story or novel.

It’s also a great way to complete a challenge like NaNoWriMo if you “run out of story” before reaching your word goal. Go back through your story and look for points where it could have gone in a different direction and write those versions. You might find you like one of the alternate stories better than the original.

We’re NOT Bored:
Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Debbie Ridpath Ohi with I'm Bored book

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a Toronto-based writer and illustrator. Her illustrations appear in I’m Bored, a picture book written by Michael Ian Black that’s being published by Simon and Schuster this fall. I’m Bored recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Debbie also has an illustrated short story included in TOMO, a Japan teen fiction anthology (Stone Bridge Press, March 2012) whose proceeds will benefit young people affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Author of The Writer’s Online Marketplace (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001), Debbie’s nonfiction, fiction and poetry has also appeared in numerous print and online venues including Magic Tails (co-written short story with Michelle Sagara West, DAW Books 2005), Cottage Life, Applied Arts, Harp Column, Writer’s Digest and others.

Debbie was the creator and editor of Inkspot and Inklings, one of the very first websites and electronic newsletters for writers.

Debbie’s current projects include her own picture books, a teen novel that was nominated for the 2011 Sue Alexander Award, a compilation of her comics for writers, and a nonfiction book about board gaming.

As if that wasn’t enough, Debbie is also a talented musician and songwriter. In her spare time, she writes songs for and performs with Urban Tapestry, a filk music trio. (What’s filk? Click here.) Their songs have aired on national radio and are available on CD and in digital format.

We here at Toasted Cheese were very excited to talk to Debbie about her writing, illustrating, and experiences in the publishing industry.

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi: I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first chapter book when I was in second grade. It had illustrations and was written in pencil, and I was so very proud of the fact that I used the word “horrendous,” which I had carefully looked up in Roget’s thesaurus before including it in my story. Unfortunately, I misspelled it, so the teacher wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had hoped she would be.

TC: How did you make the decision to take the leap from having a regular full-time job into freelance writing?

Life in a Nutshell: I'm Bored Process

DRO: With the help of my husband. Jeff was my boyfriend back then, when I was a programmer/analyst at the head office of a big Canadian bank. I used to wake up around 5 AM every morning, get dressed up in my business suit and head to the office, briefcase in hand. As time passed, I would stay longer and longer at the office. Then I began working weekends.

I loved programming, but I felt like I was working on a very small cog of a huge machine (in terms of our programming projects) … a stark contrast to the creativity involved in programming assignments in school. I also wasn’t used to all the corporate bureaucracy, with intimidating stacks of forms and memos and meetings involved in what seemed like every small decision.

Anyway, Jeff was full witness to my gradual progression from optimistic enthusiasm to frustration to misery. One day, he offered to support me so I could find a happier path.

After some intense discussions with Jeff, I resigned from my position and embraced the freelance life.

In addition to freelance writing, I also earned money in a number of different jobs along the way, including working in a public library and in a children’s bookstore.

TC: Your writing career began in nonfiction. Was it difficult to transition into writing fiction?

DRO: My first writing sale was actually in fiction: a short story for Hobnob magazine (now defunct). I was paid US$10 and won their Reader’s Choice Award; I never cashed the cheque because I wanted to keep it.

I’ve always been writing fiction, though I haven’t yet sold any novels. But I will! 🙂

TC: You obviously keep very busy. What tips do you have for managing time effectively and finding balance in your life?

DRO: Hoo boy, I could write a whole book on this topic. Someday, that is, since I haven’t yet completely succeeded in the life balance part.

My main piece of advice, though, is this: Be conscious about how you spend your time. Don’t just be a passive participant, letting other people and external circumstances dictate how you live your life. Learn how to say no.

TC: When did you start working as an illustrator? How did that begin?

I'm Bored DRO: I’ve been doodling for ages, and from time to time people would pay me to do small one-off projects, like a birthday or housewarming card. After joining Flickr, I began posting some of my doodles and drawings that I did purely for the fun of it. Sometimes people who liked the art I posted would contact me for small custom projects. I also had a few online comics going, some of which attracted a lot of readers. My Waiting For Frodo comic, for example, even had fans at Weta Digital!

However, my career in children’s book illustration didn’t start until the summer of 2010, when my friend Beckett Gladney convinced me to enter the SCBWI Summer Conference Illustration Portfolio Showcase. I was thrilled to win one of the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program awards, and learned so much from my mentors as well as my fellow mentees (see our blog). But that’s not all…

One of the judges was Justin Chanda, who is the publisher of three flagship imprints at Simon & Schuster: S&S Books For Young Readers, Atheneum, and McElderry Books. When he saw my illustrations, he immediately thought I’d be the right illustrator for Michael Ian Black’s I’m Bored (yay!).

You can read the full story here.

TC: What was it like collaborating on a picture book? What can you tell us about that process?

DRO: Working with Justin Chanda and Laurent Linn on I’m Bored was amaaaazing. Justin was editor on the project, and Laurent was my art director. I learned so much during the process, not just about illustration but also storytelling.

As a newbie illustrator, I had expected to be told pretty much exactly what I was supposed to draw, and have little input. Instead, Justin and Laurent were interested in my input throughout, and strongly encouraged me to be creative as I interpreted Michael Ian Black’s wonderful story.

I loved the back-and-forth in the discussions we had in person and on the phone. I was incredibly nervous at that first meeting but I remember that after only a few minutes, I was drawn into the conversation so deeply that I forgot about feeling self-conscious and focused instead on the book, and what we could do to make the book as strong as possible.

And as I write that, I realized that this was one of the turning points for me in the collaboration process: when I began to think in terms of what everyone was doing rather than only my part.

You can read my blog posts about collaboration and other aspects of working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers here.

TC: You are obviously incredibly successful at using the internet/social media to market yourself and connect with other writers. Do you have any advice for our readers about using the internet as a tool in this way?

DRO: Thank you for the kind words about my social media skills. I’ve worked hard at them and made many mistakes along the way.

My main piece of advice for writers wanting to use social media and the Internet to market themselves and connect with other writers:

If most of your posts have to do with self-promotion or trying to sell something, it’s unlikely you’ll attract many new readers.

Instead, offer something to people they can’t easily get elsewhere, that makes them want to come back. Once they feel they know you, then (and not before) they will be more likely to be interested in your projects.

In my opinion, the value of social media is much more about making connections with other people than in self-promotion.

TC: Who are some authors/illustrators you admire? Who would you say has influenced you?

DRO: My biggest influence and author/illustrator I admire the most: my sister, Ruth Ohi.

Watching my sister work over the years on over 50 children’s picture books, I have learned a great deal about the craft and business. She has also inspired me with her focus and productivity, especially how she managed her work time when her children were very young.

Ruth continues to support and encourage me. There were times during I’m Bored when I got discouraged about my illustrations (“OH MY GOD I SUCK WHAT IF THEY HATE WHAT I’M DOING AND FIRE ME” etc.); my sister talked me off the ledge. 🙂

Thank you, Sis!

TC: Do you have a favorite project, past or current, so far?

DRO: I’m Bored.

I had so much fun working on this. I am totally serious.

I also learned a ton about the craft and business of making a picture book.

TC: Earlier this year, you announced that you signed two book contracts with Simon & Schuster; one to illustrate another picture book, and another to write and illustrate a picture book of your own. Can you give us any update on those projects?

DRO: I’m in the very early stages of creating the picture book that I am writing and illustrating with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. So far, I have had two phone meetings with my editor, Justin Chanda. I would say that right now I’m working on the pre-pre-1st draft. 🙂

As for the other picture book, Simon & Schuster is still looking for the right project for me to illustrate. Fingers crossed!

I’m blogging about the process of creating picture books with Simon & Schuster, for those interested.
Toasted Cheese comic


Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. She is the illustrator of I’M BORED by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Sept/2012) and her work also appears in the teen fiction anthology, TOMO (Stone Bridge Press, Mar/2012). Represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd. URL: DebbieOhi.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.

I'm BoredFor longer bios, see: Press Bios: Debbie Ridpath Ohi

WHERE YOU CAN FIND DEBBIE:

About I’M BORED:
Author: Michael Ian Black
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Ages: 3-8
ISBN 978-1-4424-1403-7

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories:
Ryan Potter

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Seven years ago, Ryan Potter submitted his first short story, “Dale’s Night” to Toasted Cheese. It was chosen as an Editor’s Pick by Boots (me) in June 2004. This February, he submitted again, with a very interesting cover letter.

Dear Toasted Cheese Editor(s),

My name is Ryan Potter. I basically owe my writing career to Toasted Cheese. I wrote my first short story back in 2003 and Toasted Cheese published it as an Editor’s Pick (Boots’s) in June 2004. That important first published credit led to others and, eventually, a solid agent who represented my novels. My debut novel, Exit Strategy, was released by Flux back on March 1, 2010, to good reviews. I’m still writing short stories and recently completed one that I think would make a nice fit with Toasted Cheese. With that, please consider for publication the enclosed 4,500-word story, “When God Bowls Strikes in Heaven,” a tale of one memorable summer morning in the life of a suburban father and husband.

Thank you for publishing my work seven years ago, and thank you for considering my current submission. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Ryan Potter

This letter certainly caught our attention. Since this year we celebrated Toasted Cheese’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to explore Ryan’s relationship with TC and asked him to take us down memory lane.

Toasted Cheese: Can you remember how you found Toasted Cheese?

Ryan Potter: I found TC via Writer’s Digest in 2003. TC was listed as one of the best sites for writers that year or the year before, so I knew I had to check it out.

TC: What attracted you to TC?

RP: I was a new writer with no experience or publication credits. I’d just finished what I felt was my first story worth submitting. I liked how TC was so open to new writers. I wasn’t intimidated and felt very comfortable with the submission guidelines.

TC: Did you become a member of the community? If so, why? If not, why not?

RP: I did not become a member of the community, but it had nothing to do with not liking the community concept. Basically, I was having so much fun writing stories that I didn’t want to slow down for anything. Any free time I had was spent in the chair, writing as much original material as possible.

TC: What made you decide to submit that first story?

RP: Ah, that’s an easy one. That particular story, “Dale’s Night,” was the first story my wife actually liked.

TC: How did you feel about being published?

RP: Being published (“Dale’s Night” was my first credit) validated all of my hard work. I can’t describe the feeling of receiving positive feedback on my fiction from fellow writers and other people in the publishing world. It’s still an amazing feeling when it happens, and I don’t think that will ever change. That first credit gave me the confidence to keep writing.

TC: What did you do when you were told you’d be featured?

RP: Let’s see. That was almost seven years ago. I don’t keep a personal diary or journal, but I remember telling my wife right away and sharing a celebratory toast not long afterward. I’m a fairly private person, so I didn’t tell very many people.

TC: How many stories did you publish after that?

RP: Around seven to ten, I think. Again, I’m so bad at keeping records. Of course, I wrote a lot more than seven to ten stories. Some worked. Most didn’t. It’s all part of the process.

TC: When did you start and finish your novel?

RP: I started Exit Strategy (Flux, 2010) in June of 2005 and completed the first draft in September. Although it only took three months, there were several major revisions after that.

TC: Tell us a little about the book.

RP: Here’s a quick synopsis:

Looming above Zach Ramsey’s hometown of Blaine are the smokestacks of the truck assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting the hell out of town after graduation. But first, he’s going to enjoy the summer before senior year.

Getting smashed with his best friend Tank and falling in love for the first time, Zach’s having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone—including Tank, a wrestler whose violent mood swings betray a shocking habit.

As he gets pulled deeper into an ugly scandal, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life—one that will prove just what kind of adult he’s destined to be.

TC: How did you find an agent?

RP: I found my agent five years ago through one of those mass query blast sites. I’ve since heard many agents criticize that kind of approach, but it sure worked for me. However, I did my homework first and didn’t query anybody until I had a solid cover letter and a polished manuscript.

TC: I’m not familiar with “mass query blast site”. What kind of site* is that?

RP: I found the mass query service through ScriptBlaster. They specialize in screenplays, but they also offer an “agent blast” for novels.

TC: When was your novel published?

RP: Exit Strategy came out on March 1, 2010. It’s been over a year and so far it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much about the business side of writing and publishing. I feel much more prepared for future projects as a result of my experience with Exit Strategy.

TC: You’re still submitting to publications—didn’t you get instantly rich?

RP: Ha! Not quite. Even if I did, I’d never stop writing and submitting short stories. You never know when one of those short story ideas might blossom into your next novel. Actually, that’s exactly what happened with the project I’m currently finishing up (and hoping to sell).

TC: What brought you back to TC?

RP: TC gave me my start. I’ll always be grateful for that. I know for a fact that the TC story credit for “Dale’s Night” caught the eye of my original agent.

TC: I know your recent submission didn’t make the cut for the June issue—will you submit to Toasted Cheese again in the future?

RP: Yes, I have a polished story ready to submit to TC and will do so as soon as I finish the revisions for the young adult novel I’m wrapping up.

TC: What would you tell an unpublished author?

RP: Three words: Never give up. Okay, maybe that’s too cliché, but it’s so true. Find your story and write it. Don’t worry about agents and publication credits until you have the best piece of work you can produce. It all starts with your original material. Once you have a polished product, then you can start researching agents and checking out submission guidelines for agencies and/or publications.

Oh, a little about rejection. It’s going to happen. A lot. Get a thick skin and deal with it. The best way to deal with rejection is to smile, breathe, and try to learn something from it to make you a better writer. I realize you can’t learn much from form rejection letters, but if you’re fortunate enough to get some detailed feedback from people in the business, pay attention to it. These people are trying to help you.

TC: What other online sites should authors be submitting to or visiting?

RP: I think AgentQuery is the best place to start researching agents. It’s free and has an excellent reputation. Also, I make a point of checking the bestseller lists for the New York Times and Amazon weekly. It keeps me fresh on what’s selling. What else? Gosh, there’s so much out there online. Twitter is a great way to follow editors, publishing houses, agents, and writers. Having said that, I tend to use it only when I have a new project completed. The internet’s helpful in many ways, but for me it’s a huge distraction during the writing process.

TC: What are you working on now?

RP: I mentioned that I was finishing up something. It’s a young adult paranormal novel about demons, ghost hunters, and rock bands. That’s about all I can reveal at the moment! I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, so hopefully the right things will happen and it will make its way out there to the world.

Toasted Cheese looks forward to more stories from Ryan in the future, both at the site and in the bookstores.


Do you have a success story to tell? Email us (editors[at]toasted-cheese.com) or post it on our Chasms and Crags forum (which you don’t need to be registered to use). We love to hear how the community has helped authors!

Note: After some research at the suggested site, it’s basically a kind of “speed dating” for writers who need agents. At the site Ryan mentions, it’s a paid-for service and they send your query letter out to a number of agents (depending on cost). They also have some tips on query letters and as Ryan says, don’t query unless both your cover letter and manuscript are polished and ready. Remember you should research all agencies of this type thoroughly and understand the consequences before you pay for a service that you can do yourself for free.

Final Poll Results

Kissing Zombies and Blowing Up
the World: An Interview
with Adam Selzer

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Adam Selzer, a Chicago-based author, musician, and ghost-hunter, has published nine books. His most recent young-adult (YA) novel, I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, has been praised by Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the School Library Journal, and the film rights have been optioned by Disney. On the deal, Selzer says, “I don’t know if they’ll actually make it, but it’s an honor just for them to think of me.”

The idea for I Kissed a Zombie came from a song Selzer wrote in 2000 called “I Thought She was a Goth.” His editor at Random House heard the song and suggested that he write a novel based on it.

His Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History, a history book for young adults, has been compared to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert by Publisher’s Weekly and the School Library Journal. In addition to his YA novels and nonfiction books, Selzer has also published middle-grade novels. His latest, Andrew North Blows Up the World, was released last year.

His first novel, How to Get Suspended and Influence People, was nominated for a Cybils 2007 Young Adult Fiction award. In 2009, Selzer and the novel made national news when a parent tried to have it removed from a library in Idaho.

Toasted Cheese had the chance to talk to Selzer about his writing.

Toasted Cheese: When/how did you get started writing?

Adam Selzer: Kindergarten—as soon as I knew how to construct words out of letters, I got right to it.

TC: Who influenced you as a writer?

AS: Daniel Pinkwater* is probably my biggest influence. See, it’s like this: when you watch a Busby Berkeley musical scene in a movie, you think “now here is a guy who figured out that he could do things in movies that he could never do onstage.” With Pinkwater, I got the idea that you could do stuff in books that you could never manage in movies. And it helped me develop the sense that there’s a whole weird world lurking under the surface of everyday life, a lesson I badly needed to learn before I could become a decent writer.

TC: Every writer dreams of the day they can quit their day job. When (and how) did that day arrive for you?

AS: Well, I never really had one, unless you count eleven years of retail and restaurant gigs. I still don’t exactly make big bucks as a writer, but I found I was making better money than I did washing dishes or slinging coffee. I still pick up odd jobs—I worked as a copywriter for a miserable company downtown for a couple of months, and, I worked for the census this spring, which was a lot of fun. The threat of going back to retail work still looms large in my nightmares, though.

TC: Describe a typical “workday” for you. Where do you write? For how long?

AS: I have the coolest desk in the world. It is a go-go-gadget desk. It’s a rolltop that I customized to have secret compartments, locks, and all kinds of cool stuff. But for some reason, I absolutely can’t write at it. I almost never even try. But I’m the first one in at the coffee shop down the block most mornings—if I’m not in by 7:30, they expect me to bring a note explaining my tardiness. I usually write a few hours per day.

TC: You’ve published both fiction and nonfiction. Can you tell us about the processes involved in each?

AS: Other than the research, it’s pretty much the same process of organizing ideas and shuffling stuff around, really.

TC: What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

AS: Usually the middle part of a first draft. I can come up with concepts for books, and how to end them, without too much trouble, but figuring out how to get from point A to point B can be tricky—especially in a middle-grade book, where you can’t just let the narrator run his or her mouth off for a few pages here and there.

TC: What are you working on now?

AS: Revisions for the follow-up to Zombie, a book that takes place three years later in the same town, as well as making notes for another paranormal YA, a non-paranormal YA, and a couple of middle grade books and, hopefully, another Smart Aleck’s Guide. The key to keeping out of retail is to work a lot, I think, so I do! I’m also editing a documentary about a statue of a naked guy with angel wings riding a tricycle that was at my mall when I was a kid. I never realized there was anything unusual about it back then (man, did I need Daniel Pinkwater!) and a collection of essays on pop culture and life in Chicago.

TC: Like most writers, you have an active online presence (website, Facebook, Twitter, etc). How important is the social media aspect of marketing, and how does it work for you?

AS: It’s important because it’s an easy way to get attention, which I’m not ashamed to admit I love. I don’t know how well it works, exactly, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Having a Facebook fan page is a much better way to connect than an old-fashioned mailing list.

TC: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

AS: Read. Read a lot. Read classics and figure out why they’re classics (and don’t just say it’s because some professor said so). Then read bad books and figure out what makes them bad.

I gave Adam five topics and asked him for a “list of five” on each. Here are his responses:

Five authors you admire:

  1. Daniel Pinkwater—I’ve based my life on his teachings, and travel to places he wrote about around Chicago regularly. Those that haven’t been torn down for condos or a Starbucks, anyway.
  2. Charles Dickens—especially the mid-to-late novels.
  3. Bill Bryson—my fellow Des Moines native.
  4. Harlan Ellison—I discovered him in 8th grade—there was a copy of Paingod and Other Delusions in this little bookshop that was also a tanning place in Urbandale, Iowa, and I just couldn’t pass up a book with a title like that.
  5. Gordon Korman—I wonder if he’d let me write a new Bugs Potter book?

Five books you’d bring with you to a deserted island:

  1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern—a very long, post-modern 18th century novel that makes very little sense. It’d be good to have on a desert island because it would keep me busy for years.
  2. I Hated Hated Hated Hated this Movie by Roger Ebert—to remind me that there are worse things than being stranded on a desert island.
  3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens—pretty much the same reason as Tristram Shandy, only it has the added bonus of having a character who spontaneously combusts midway through the book.
  4. 5 Novels by Daniel Pinkwater—all in one volume, so it only count as one, not five. Ha!
  5. A blank one so I can write things down—plus, I could obsess for weeks over how to make ink using stuff on a desert island.

Five CDs you can’t live without:

  1. Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
  2. Tom Waits, Nighthawk at the Diner
  3. Bruce Springsteen, The Seeger Sessions
  4. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha
  5. Nirvana, Unplugged

Five favorite movies/TV shows:

  1. Almost Famous
  2. Night of the Hunter
  3. Star Wars
  4. The West Wing
  5. The Simpsons

Five things on your dresser or nightstand:

  1. a Han Solo in Carbonite action figure (which is really an inaction figure)
  2. a broken clock, soon to be replaced by a nifty Bakelite art deco model
  3. about fifty books
  4. a half-empty can of pepsi
  5. clip-on sunglasses

*Daniel Pinkwater is the author of The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Coincidence? We think not. -The Snarkers

Final Poll Results

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, Author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

There are many joys working in a bookstore, among them when an author walks in and asks if we’d like him to sign the books of his that we have on the shelves. That was how I met Trenton Lee Stewart, author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trent is a local fellow. In his own words: “I grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, went to a small liberal arts school called Hendrix College, and finally attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I continued to live in Iowa City for several years while my wife finished work on her Ph.D., after which we moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the public library and also did some teaching. Both of my published novels, Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society (a children’s novel) were completed while I lived in Cincinnati. Last year we moved back to Arkansas, where I now write full-time—most recently on a follow-up to The Mysterious Benedict Society due out in 2008.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is hugely successful. Here’s an interview with him.

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart

TOASTED CHEESE: How did you get your start as a writer?

TRENTON LEE STEWART: I wrote occasional stories and poems beginning in elementary school and continued until college, where I began to write fiction in earnest. Afterward I was accepted into the graduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa, spent a couple of years discovering how little I knew about craft, and then spent several years more working various odd jobs as I tried to figure things out. During that time I published several stories, but I also wrote a lot of fiction that would never be published. I suppose it all amounted, in the end, to a start.

TC: What’s the first thing you published?

TLS: The first thing I ever published was a story I wrote in college about a man who falls overboard, unnoticed, in the middle of the ocean. He is certain to die (probably by drowning, though he also fears shark attack), and the story deals with his final hours. I sold it for five dollars to a tiny amateur literary journal now long since extinct. The most interesting thing about this story, though, is that some years later, flipping through an anthology of horror stories a co-worker had pressed on me, I came across a story that was almost identical to the one I’d written. Though I was stunned by how similar the two stories were, there could be no question of plagiarism, because the anthologized story had been written almost a century before, and by none other than a young Winston Churchill. My wife said this just proved I have a great deal in common with famous world leaders.

TC: That’s a great story. Do you drink brandy every day like Churchill? 😉

TLS: I’m pretty sure that story was the only thing Churchill and I have in common. I like brandy, actually, but rarely drink it. My beverage of choice would have to be strong coffee with a little milk. That’s something I do drink every day, with the occasional latte thrown in for good measure.

TC: I’d like to add that you are most diplomatic, another thing you have in common. Moving on, tell us about your path to being published.

TLS: It was a fairly straight path, but with lots of steep hills. My early interest in reading, and in words in general, helped me to excel in my English classes. I received lots of encouragement about my writing from teachers along the way, which led me to focus on it as a possible vocation. I studied literature and took a couple of writing courses in college. After that it was a matter of applying myself relentlessly to writing, to sending out my work again and again, and to accepting innumerable rejections as part of the path.

TC: About your path to getting published—tell us more about the entire process.

TLS: I’ve sold all my short stories myself, but years ago a friend of mine referred me to a good agent, who liked my work and with whom I developed a rapport. He wasn’t enthusiastic about selling Flood Summer, though—this happens a lot, actually; an agent may like your work yet not be excited enough to commit to trying to sell it—so I ended up selling that myself (to SMU Press). But I got in touch with the agent again when I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, and he loved it and sent it out right away to several different editors. It was a bit dream-like. Within a couple of weeks I was talking to editors—more than one wanted the book—and deciding which publisher I wanted to go with. A rare situation and certainly nothing like my previous experience trying to sell my work. And by sheer coincidence, both Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society were sold at virtually the same time (six weeks apart).

Both book editors wanted some revisions, so I was suddenly extremely busy. I finished Flood Summer first, after a few months of work, and it came out a year later. SMU is a university press without deep pockets, of course, so although they produce handsome, high-quality books, and are able to place some ads and send out review copies, much of the marketing ultimately depends on the author’s own motivation. I have writer friends who have arranged countless readings and signings at bookstores and universities and really get the word out there, but when Flood Summer came out I had two small children, a working spouse, and another pressing deadline, and I didn’t feel capable of more than a few readings and an interview or two. Still, I expected, or at least hoped, that it would receive some additional attention as a result of the publicity for The Mysterious Benedict Society (and it has).

The Mysterious Benedict Society was different. I spent a year, off and on, revising and editing it. The editors would suggest changes, and I would make changes, but the draft still wouldn’t feel quite right to everyone involved, and we’d go back to work. To be honest it was a very difficult process even though I liked my editors. Eventually it was finished, though, and Little, Brown put an enormous amount of energy and a lot of money into marketing it. Promotional mailings, websites, etc, and they sent me to do signings and meet prominent booksellers and librarians both before and after the book came out. I also was sent on a tour doing bookstore signings and talking about the book to students in schools.

TC: In Mysterious Benedict Society you use some delightful names that reflect the characters’ and places’ personae: Constance Contraire, Ledroptha Curtain, Nomansan Island, to name a few. Talk about your process of naming.

TLS: It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke. I set out in writing this book to have fun, to give myself freedom to fool around and be playful, and the naming process ended up being part of that. A lot of minor characters would have mundane, place-holder names at first, but eventually most, though not all, of them earned a more interesting moniker.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin?

TLS: Most of the time I begin with a scene, or part of a scene, that has occurred to me and engages my interest—often it’s an unusual visual image or an unusual interaction between characters. I suppose conflict is at the heart of it, but it might be anything, really. If this scene or partial scene holds my interest, I’ll eventually start wondering what led to it, and what would follow it, and what kind of people would be involved in it. In other words, plot and character usually develop, more or less simultaneously, from some other element that drew my interest.

TC: Do you see writing Young Adult fiction as your future? Is Mysterious Benedict Society an ongoing series?

TLS: I see it as part of my future but not all of it. I’ve almost completed a second Mysterious Benedict Society book and intend to write a third (and final) one, and I would like to write still more children’s books, which afford their own particular pleasures. At the same time, I have always written fiction for adults and love doing that, too, so I imagine (and hope) I will continue to write both.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

TLS: It’s shifted frequently over the years to fit my circumstances. I’ve stayed up late, gotten up early, whatever made sense at the time. More recently I write every weekday, usually starting in mid-morning and finishing in the mid-afternoon, with some breaks throughout.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

TLS: I love writing the first draft of any project—from arranging ideas and scenes into a rough plot to the actual crafting of sentences—no matter how difficult. The second or third draft, whichever one requires the most destruction in service of producing a better work, tends to be my least favorite stage of the process. But on an everyday level, what I enjoy least about writing is having to stop.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you break through?

TLS: It seems to me that writer’s block is not so much a lack of ideas as it is a flare-up of perfectionism: the writer doesn’t want to put something bad on the page, and everything he or she can think of seems bad. When this happens to me (as it occasionally does) I remind myself that the act of writing is different from thinking about what to write, that if I will just start laying down prose I will probably discover something to help me move forward. I may need to discard what I’ve written, or it may reveal to me that I need to be writing something different, but one way or another the act of writing tends to eliminate the act of fretting before a blank page.

TC: Why do you write?

TLS: It’s a natural outgrowth of something I’ve always done. Even before I could write—in fact even before I could read—I created elaborate stories in my head. I called it “thinking,” and I would shush my family if they were being too loud while I did it. I loved making up stories, then, and this led to writing them down, which (once I gained some competence) I also loved—and still do. If I didn’t love it I’m sure I wouldn’t still be doing it, because it’s a hard thing to do, with too many inconveniences, frustrations, and risks. So while it may seem too simple an explanation, I suppose the answer really is that I write because I love it.

TC: What is your advice for writers who want/hope to be published?

TLS: I can offer specific advice only to fiction writers, but more broadly I can say that nothing is more important than the writing itself, so you need to feel confident that what you’re sending out is as good as you can possibly make it. Beyond that, the key ingredient is perseverance, by which I mean insane stubbornness. You have to accept—even embrace—rejection as part of the process. If you can stomach that, and you work and work, your chances of eventually being published are helped immeasurably.

More specific advice for fiction writers: If you’re trying to sell short stories, don’t try to talk editors into liking your work. They’ll either like it or they won’t. Your cover letters should be professional and brief. If you don’t have any publications to your credit, fine: just say thanks for considering the enclosed story and be done with it. No gimmicks. The writing must speak for itself.

For book-length fiction, finding an agent usually helps, but you still have to send your very best writing, and you still have to be ready for rejection.

The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents are all updated yearly and are a really good starting place for publishing information.

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