Monday, May 11, 2009

Quitting Caffeine is Totally Overrated... And Author Interview with Sydney Salter

Decaffeinating Brodi Status: ummm.... caffeinated. I blame it on the allergy season. And the sun- that golden orb of doom. Plus, I didn't realize I already tried to quit caffeine a couple months ago. It was too early to start another disastrous attempt, right?


Sydney Salter (whose book My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters is on bookshelves now) has graciously answered all of our burning questions.

Sydney Salter

If you cool blog readers out there get a chance, leave a comment and say "hi" to Sydney, and visit her website to find out more about this book and her other projects.

I thought Big Nose was a fun read, and I could totally relate to the self-esteem issues. Hello, my cankles. And don't get me started on my cheeks.

1. (From Cam) The fact that you wrote about someone wanting a nose job - was this from personal experience? Do you incorporate a lot of your own experiences and self into the story? If not, how does one come up with research inside a character with a really bad nose? For some reason that seems harder than identifying with someone who is, say, fat...

I hated my nose in high school so writing about that came pretty easily. Although I think that a writer can take any similar feeling and give it to a character—because the basis of the emotion is the same: feeling unworthy, unlovable, unattractive. So whether it’s weight, a big nose, or funny knees (which would have been much easier to talk about) the overall feelings are alike.

2. (From Cam) In general I am very curious how someone goes from an idea to formulating it into chapters, characters, plot development, side plots, etc. I always imaging a huge creative writing bubble (like they used to make you do in grade school) but I would think I would get so confused and stuck trying to put it all together.
(From Sal) How in the heck do you even write a story to begin with? It just seems like so much, you know, work! How does it go from "Once upon a time..." to a full-blown book?

I wrote My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters during National Novel Writing Month (an online challenge to write 50,000 words in November). I started with the situation: a girl who hates her nose. I also wanted to put my worst-ever job experience to good use so I gave her my job of delivering cakes and flowers. So that helped me come up with the basic plot. Next I thought about friends and love interests (I cut out pictures from magazines for fun). I created the mother’s character because my mom told me about this crazy Dinner For Breakfast Diet she once tried (and I love to tease my mother through my stories). To organize everything I make a notebook for each novel. I used a calendar to organize the plot as I went along.

My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters is my fourth manuscript so I’d pretty much figured out how to organize a novel. I outlined my first three manuscripts more extensively. I used different colored pens to mark subplots and characters so I could make sure I didn’t lose anyone.

It’s not so bad—try it yourself!

3. (From Cam) A lot of authors seem to use very fancy words sometimes - I want to know if you are all really that smart or how many times you really have to Google words and use a thesaurus???

Are you asking to see my SAT scores? I do read quite a bit and have a pretty decent vocabulary, but I use the thesaurus a lot! The character I’m writing about now is really smart so I’m always looking up fancy words for her to use. I’m always Googling how to spell words too. Here’s a secret: I tend to use words over and over again during a first draft. I have one YA manuscript where I removed 1,100 uses of “just,” “only,” and “even.” Yikes! I get much smarter with every revised version of the story.

4. (From Kim Reid) I have yet to join SCBWI and I know Sydney is the Utah/Idaho SCBWI guru. I'd like to know how she got her position doing this and if she feels being especially involved in this organization (not just a regular member) contributed to her writing success, and if so, how. Thanks!

I started as a volunteer and organized a workshop before taking over as Regional Advisor. I do credit SCBWI with much of my writing success. I’ve learned so much at conferences and I’ve made great contacts with editors, agents, and other authors. An agent at the New York conference intensive recommended my current agency to me. But all of those opportunities are available to every member—I just have extra incentive to go to the national conferences (I like seeing my RA friends and I don’t have to pay the tuition fee). I do get to schmooze with the speakers who come to Utah and Idaho. But you can too—if you volunteer to help out. Hint. Hint.

5. (From Debbie): I know a lot of authors have to go through TONS of revisions and edits so I got curious. After Sydney did that with her book was she generally happy with the outcome or did she really miss certain pieces that were deleted (could she possibly share one with us?)?

Lots of revisions! Before submitting the book to publishers my agent had me tighten a few scenes and add a few scenes. I usually get asked to add stuff to my manuscripts (I think it’s because I’m not very good at writing description). I’m really happy with how the book turned out—and very grateful for all those revisions.

In my next book, Jungle Crossing, a middle-grade that comes out in September, I did have to cut about 1,500 words from a single chapter. I got into WAY too much detail describing a Mayan creation myth that didn’t really move the story forward. I kept it and kept it, critique after critique, until finally listening to my agent. And he was right—the book is stronger without it. Funny, my editor didn’t ask me to add anything to that chapter either (she wanted more cuts). And she was right too!

6. (From Debbie) What's her favorite word?

Cupcake (I have trouble separating words from their meanings).

7. (From Debbie) If she could meet with any other author who would it be and what would she ask them?

After hearing Carolyn Mackler speak at a conference a couple of years ago, I really, really wanted to hang out with her, and have lunch, chat about writing, kids, dumb things we did in high school…

8. (From Una) How do you write young characters? What inspires you in your portrayal? Ex - do you pull from past experiences? Other youths in your life?

I’m seriously begging the youths in my life (I have two daughters) to please, please, please not do anything worthy of a novel plot during their teen years. I kept a daily diary all throughout high school so sometimes I will reread those for inspiration. But again I think I still experience the same emotions, except instead of waiting for a guy to call, I’m waiting for my agent to call (I’m sort of joking, but not really). It’s not too hard for me to channel my inner 17-year-old.

9. (From Una) Jory is obviously in high school and plastic surgery has been around a while, but do you feel that teenagers (those under 18) having plastic surgery is still slightly frowned upon/taboo? Is this a reason that possibly spurred you to write this story?

I think a lot of girls get plastic surgery too young—and without thinking of the long-term consequences. A boob job now may mean not being able to breastfeed babies later. I think too many girls use plastic surgery to fix problems on the outside that really need to be addressed on the inside (self-acceptance). Of course, plastic surgery makes an amazing difference when medically necessary after injury or due to birth defects. But will fixing a bumpy nose really lead to true happiness? No, you’ve got to figure that out for yourself. That’s what spurred me to write the book.

10. (From Kim) I'd like to know how she balances family and writing. And her website mentions that fear of failure stopped her writing for a while. How does she keep herself from feeling that way now and keep writing?

I have to admit to a tiny tinge of fear whenever I sit down in front of a blank page, but I love writing so much that I don’t think I could stop now. Balancing family time with writing under deadline has proven a bit more tricky and I’m still figuring it out. I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband and daughters who are old enough (9 and 13) to understand when I need to work. I usually try to write while my girls are in school, but lately I’ve had to work longer hours (sometimes on the weekend) and that’s been tough. I had a revision deadline that fell in the middle of our last family vacation so I had to skip a few activities and work in a nearby coffee shop. I try to turn off my computer between dinner and bedtime so I can spend time with my family.

P.S. While answering these questions, I forgot that I’d switched to the afternoon carpool just for today. I was twenty minutes late picking up my neighbor and daughter from school. So, yeah, I’m still figuring out the balance thing!

12. (From Kim) I'd also like to know what she does about marketing her book. How much time, effort, money, etc, does she put into it?

Oh, marketing! The biggest debut author conundrum (that’s for you, Cam). My publisher wants me to maintain an online presence so I’m active on Facebook, MySpace, and Goodreads as well as working at keeping up a blog. I’ve also made great friends through my online marketing groups (The Class of 2k9 and The 2009 Debutantes). Collective marketing has been a great time and money saver. The Debutantes have created a 40 site blog tour that has increased awareness for my book, plus those amazing authors have so much varied experience and can answer nearly any marketing question. The Class of 2k9 hired a publicist for the group (something I couldn’t afford on my own), printed postcards, created a website, and chats up all the titles across the country.

I haven’t spent much money other than a bit of postage to send interview copies (my publisher is good about sending copies as well). I’m doing small things like making postcards for my next book (which is appropriate for younger readers) and ordering book plates to sign for fans who live far away. I did have my website professionally designed because I lack those skills.

Time is another issue. I love to write so I won’t let marketing get in the way of that (I know a few debut authors who haven’t written much lately). I probably could do more marketing, but I get too crabby when I stop writing. And I do have that family who wants my attention.

13. Could you please include how you got published?

I began writing seriously when my youngest daughter started preschool (she’s now in 3rd grade). I submitted my first novel, wrote the next one, received numerous rejections, won local writing contests, published magazine stories, wrote a third novel, revised the first one thoroughly, and wrote the fourth novel. I recognized that My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters was my most commercial story so I only submitted it to agents (while writing a fifth novel). I got really nice rejection letters, including the one from the agent recommending Firebrand Literary. I sent in a query via their online system and got a quick response asking to see the entire manuscript. Ted Malawer, Firebrand’s new agent, loved it! I signed with him after doing a bit of revision and he submitted after a bit more revision (it’s always about revision). Harcourt bought it in a two-book deal while I was on my way to the SCBWI conference in LA (I got to celebrate with all my writing friends). That fall, Ted submitted my first manuscript, Jungle Crossing, to my editor. She bought that one too. So after all those years of struggling (and revising), I’ve sold three books: My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters, Jungle Crossing, and Swoon At Your Own Risk (my 7th manuscript—see? I just can’t stop writing). Persistence and practice pay off!

Thanks, Sydney, for answering our questions, especially when you're in the middle of revisions. We can't wait to get those SAT scores. And your agent, Ted, sounds like an absolute gem.


  1. Brodi how long did that last like a few days?:)

    Ok now that is just exciting to see my questions answered by a fab author like Sydney. So fun!

    To Sydney:
    I just heard about NanoWrimo 2 years ago and have always wanted to participate. Thats awesome that you wrote Big Nose during that. Now I'm even more interested in trying it this year!

    Really looking forward to Swoon at Your Own Risk!

  2. Debbie- It lasted, like, more than a few days. It lasted an entire work week.

    You should definitely try NaNoWriMo. I admire anyone, like Sydney, who can write a novel in a month.

    Sounds like you have a book in you?

  3. I find it interesting to listen to other authors and seeing what motivated them and everything that went into writing a book. I love the title of her book as well.

    And congrats on lasting a couple of days without caffeine. That is an accomplishment you should be very proud of. I lasted yesterday from 10pm until 8am this morning.

  4. Sam- One whole night without caffeine? You already have me beat.

  5. Sydney - thank you for taking time to answer our questions. With the additional info we've learned, I can't wait to read Big Nose!

    Brodi - glad to see you aren't a quitter! I toast you with my travel mug of java!

  6. Una- Here's to those of us who never quit (caffeine)! Who never surrender (drinking caffeine)! Who would rather die than give up (caffeine)!

  7. So say we all!

    So say we all!

  8. What a great interview! Such interesting questions AND answers!

  9. Cheryl- I know, great answers, right? Next author interview, please feel free to submit a question!

  10. GLOATING is not a redeeming quality but I TOLD YOU SO!!!!! BOOYA!

  11. Cam- you will rue the day! (I don't know which day, and I'm not even sure how one rues, but you will rue!)

    As a side note, I totally quit caffeine again today.

  12. Thank you, Brodi!

    Debbie--definitely try NaNoWriMo. It's a great way to write because you can't freak yourself out about WHAT you're writing, you just power through.

    Good luck with quitting caffeine (and if you can't do it again--look up all those studies that say it's good for you. There's a study for everything).

  13. Ah, but Brodi, the question is, which type of rue will you make?

  14. Sydney- good point about the studies. I shall dedicate my next failed attempt to you!

    Una- Are "Rues" edible? In that case, I want to rue the day, every day.