Revision Week: Cynthia Leitich Smith


In addition to the kudos Cynthia Leitich Smith gets for her many books for young readers, her website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column. And she is a frequent speaker and writing instructor. Some serious multitasking going on here! In fact, Cynthia replied to’s questions about revision as the final draft of her newest teen novel was rolling out of her desktop printer.

*After Cynthia’s interview are instructions for entering today’s Free Partial Edit Giveaway.

1. How many drafts does it typically take before you feel confident about the character and story choices you made?

It varies wildly from project to project and has changed over the course of my career. My latest picture book, Holler Loudly, was completed over six years and significantly re-imagined several times. However, there were countless “tweak” drafts along the way.

Back when every novel I wrote was wholly new, I used to write a “discovery draft” wherein, after some prewriting, I plunged in and wrote a full story (with a beginning, middle, and end—say, 35,000 to 60,000 words) to get to know my protagonists, their goals and their world. When I was done, I would print it. Read it. Toss it. And delete the file. It sounds harsh, I know. But the idea was to take some of the pressure off. Nobody but me would ever read that dreaded first draft. And I certainly wasn’t planning to build on such a shaky foundation.

With the Tantalize series and its new spin-off Smolder series, I’m largely revisiting previously featured characters—sometimes promoting a sidekick or ally to hero—so I don’t need to start as if from scratch.

Also, over the years, I’ve shifted from a writer shopping completed, polished manuscripts to one who sells on proposal. Even though the execution of those stories may vary from the original concept, that still requires me to do a lot of big-picture thinking up front. (Watch the Tantalize trailer here.)

2. Which draft typically gets shown to your editor?

Of late, I tend to send the third draft.

3. How much revising happens after the editor sees that draft?

Anywhere from one to three rounds of revision—typically two, plus copy edits and pass pages.

4. Do you use critique partners?

I used to be in a wonderful critique group, but then I started teaching MFA students and found that I could only read thoughtfully for so many writers. At the moment, my only critique partner is my husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith. We’re tougher and more frank with each other than we’d ever be with anyone else. A comment might read: “No way is this going out of the house with the family name on it.”

That said, I don’t generally recommend having a family member as key reader. I’ve seen it create conflict that goes beyond the page. Keep in mind that Greg is in the business—he’s well-published himself—and we met as first-year law students, so we’re long used to working together in a competitive context.

5. Can you share an experience of having a story problem you didn’t think you could solve but eventually did?

Not really. I have this unshakable belief that the answers to every story are somewhere in those early drafts. We just have to read our own writing carefully enough to find them.

6. What’s the most drastic thing you’ve done to a story while revising?

Eternal, a love story between a vampire princess and her “slipped” (not fallen) guardian angel, was originally a love story between a vampire princess and the son of Santa Claus. He was an elf. A short elf named Topher. The working title was “Fangs and Mistletoe,” which I still think is adorable. Santa died in that original draft, and those of you who write for young readers should take special note of the following: You should probably not kill Santa Claus in a book. Especially a book for kids.

Trust me on that one.

It was my editor’s assistant who suggested substituting an angel, and we released Eternal a season before the angel trend hit. I’ve been asked how I knew vampires—and then angels—would be big in YA. I had no idea. I was just writing the kind of books I’d loved to read as a teenager. (Watch Eternal trailer here.)

7. How do you know you’ve got the final draft?

When I have nothing left to give, and my editor starts making concerned noises about shuffling the manuscript off to the copy editor, which oddly, always seems to happen at about the same time.…


The Editor is celebrating Revision Week by giving away a FREE PARTIAL EDIT of your manuscript. Note that the winner of today’s giveaway IS eligible for Saturday’s grand prize Full Manuscript Edit Giveaway. Here are the rules:

  1. Your manuscript can be of ANY GENRE or CATEGORY (for adults or children, fiction or non-fiction), including picture books.
  2. The partial edit will cover the FIRST CHAPTER of your manuscript. In the case of a picture book entry, the edit will cover the entire manuscript—but the manuscript cannot exceed 7 double-spaced, 12-pt font pages.
  3. Deadline: MIDNIGHT tonight, March 5, 2012, PST.
  4. Winner will be randomly selected using and announced on March 6, 2012, in the comments section and on the Facebook page, and the winner will be notified directly via email.


One entry –  SEND EMAIL to using the “Write to The Editor” button at the top of the blog or by clicking here. Type “Free Partial Edit Giveaway” in the subject line. In the body of the email, include the TITLE of your manuscript and YOUR FULL NAME. (If you have any difficulty with the contact button, send an email entry directly to

Bonus entry – SUBSCRIBE. subscribers get a bonus entry by sending a second email with “Subscriber’s Bonus Giveaway Entry” in the subject line and your title and full name in the body. (Note: the Editor will verify!) Not a subscriber yet? Then subscribe now by clicking on the “Subscribe” button at the top of and then email your second entry.

Extra bonus entries – SPREAD THE WORD. Blog, tweet, or otherwise electronically tell others about this Revision Week giveaway to get additional entries today. Send an email to with “I Spread the Word!” in the subject line, and in the body include a link to your blog post or your Twitter address or your Facebook wall or whatever social media you used to spread the word. Don’t send screen-shots; attachments won’t be accepted. Include your title and full name in the body. Spread the word more than once? Then send an “I Spread the Word!” email for each one!

Anyone who doesn’t follow these rules will be disqualified, at the Editor’s discretion.

Disclaimer: The Editor does not share or in any other way use your contact information; it’s collected solely for winner contact purposes at the end of the giveaway.

Good luck!


  1. I am a fan of Cynthia’s work and a devoted CYNSATIONS reader. Very interesting to hear how the writing and revision process flows for an accomplished author. Thanks!

  2. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog was one of the first I followed when I started blogging and trying to write novels a few years ago. It’s always been filled with insightful, interesting posts.
    Dear Editor has also been a wealth of information. I thank you both. This post fascinates me, showing the amount of writing and rewriting it takes to create a good novel. The idea of deleting the entire first draft is so scary, but I do understand now that creativity needs fluidity.
    Thanks again for this.

  3. Thanks for showing us the reality of revisions. I’m writing my first novel and have come to a roadblock. I have revised the first eight chapters numerous times. My first reaction was “OH, no! I can’t start over now.”
    after reading this post, I see that starting over is not that unusual. I’m ready to take the plunge. Thanks

  4. Writing the “discovery draft” and then throwing it away! What a concept. But I know what you mean. I wrote the first book in a mystery series and set it aside. Now I’ve written the first chapter of the second book and it’s going so much better. I know my characters now and I have the voice down. Guess I’ll have to go back and re-write the first book!

  5. Cynthia’s blog has long been a must-read for me, even in busy weeks.

    Loved the critique comment about not leaving the house with the family name on it–very funny.

    The insight about the evolution of Eternal from its original Santa elf love story is one I’d never have seen coming. Wow. 🙂

  6. Great interview! It must be so awesome to sell on ‘proposal.’ It’s the payback for hours of work and the confidence of your agent/publisher. I loved the part about husband-crits! My hubby won’t read anything, but I have a great group. 🙂

  7. I do like the idea of setting aside a first draft or at least finding a way to not be beholden to it. Taking off the pressure as you say, but I’m incapable of deleting anything. Just in case I need it some day. Does that make me an electronic hoarder? I actually end up using very little of the text of a first draft in a second, but do find many elements of the plot carry over. Thanks for your thoughts revisions.

  8. Great interview! I had been a professional writer for many years (newspapers, magazines) when I started working with Cynthia during my third semester at Vermont College’s MFA program. I thought I knew how to revise, but Cynthia pushed me to take my work beyond what I thought was possible. And she did so with such heart and humor. I am forever grateful. And I’m a huge fan of her writing.

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