Interview with Bird Face’s Author, Cynthia T. Toney

Anonymous sticky-notes, a scheming bully, and a ruined summer send almost-fourteen-year-old Wendy Robichaud down a trail of secrets and self-discovery.

Anonymous sticky-notes, a scheming bully, and a ruined summer send almost-fourteen-year-old Wendy Robichaud down a trail of secrets and self-discovery.

Using humor and offering hope, this story for ages 10 to 14 (grades 5-8) delicately addresses issues of bullying, eating disorders, imperfect families and teen suicide

 I’m so excited to present my fellow Scriblerian and critique partner Cynthia T. Toney! I came in late to the group, so I’d never read any of her work. But when I did, I was so impressed by the quality and the truthfulness of her story, that I jumped at the chance to be the first to interview her. Her main character, Wendy, leaps off the page in all her humor, awkwardness, and honesty. One can’t help but love her. But let me first tell you readers a bit about Cynthia so you can catch up to what we know!

Cynthia began her first novel, “Bird Face,” while working as an advertising artist/designer and marketing copywriter. With a love for decorating with salvage, she later became an interior decorator, and her decorating articles currently appear on homeguides.SFGate.com. She has a passion for rescuing dogs from animal shelters and studying the history of the South, where she resides with her husband and as many dogs as space will allow.

Now for a quick summary of Bird Face!

At the end of eighth grade, Wendy Robichaud doesn’t care one bit about being popular like her good-looking classmates Tookie and the Sticks—until Brainiac bully John-Monster schemes against her, and someone leaves anonymous sticky-note messages all over school. Even her best friend, Jennifer, is hiding something. But the Spring Program, abandoned puppies, and high school track team tryouts don’t leave much time to play detective. When secrets and failed dreams kick off the summer, will Jennifer still be around to support her?

Now,to jump into getting to know Cynthia and her book even better!

 Nickname: My fellow writers call me Cyn. Family calls me Cindy, but anyone is allowed. I love the name Cynthia but get tired of typing that many letters.

 Philosophy: We all have a special contribution to make. Find out what that is for you. For me, it’s working with dogs and with people who associate with them. God made us stewards of the animal kingdom, and man domesticated several species. So it is our duty to care for those, such as dogs, cats, and horses, to name but a few.

 Fave Scripture: Psalm 7:1 O Lord, my God, in you I take refuge. (That covers everything for me!)

 You’ve dealt with many school issues extremely well, (bullying, eating disorders, peer problems, family dysfunction and teen suicide) but one of them struck home with me: the desire of parents to excel at sports. Do you think this is a relatively new phenomenon?

 In the story, a parent’s desire for and pressure upon a child to excel at sports represents any and all pressure placed upon a child to achieve something non-curricular that is the parent’s dream but not necessarily the child’s. This has been around at least as long as I can remember. I’m no psychologist, and I believe that we should give children goals to reach for. But I’ve seen instances where a child shows a particular interest or a parent chooses an activity for him, and the child is forced to keep trying to be the best at it for the rest of his childhood or he’s called a quitter. Talk about stress! Adults often change jobs for one more satisfying or for which they are better suited. Maybe that child would like time to read, work with animals, or pursue an art form or a different sport. On the other hand, if a child chooses a sport or hobby, he should stick with it at least long enough to give himself a chance to do well. The amount of time would be something that the parent(s) and child should discuss. My daughter pursued dance for a few years, was very good at it, but gave it up in spite of my urging her not to. She regretted that later. I had a number of interests that my parents didn’t help me pursue at all, and I’ve often wondered if dance lessons, for example, would’ve made a difference in my life.

How long did you take to write this book from the beginning stages to the end product?

 Over a decade to write it because it took some twists and turns, and so did I. I put the manuscript aside at least a couple of times—for years at a time because of moving and job changes—and at one point lost my computer files. I’d pretty much given up on the story ever being published and then found a hard copy that was several revisions prior to the last one I remembered. I mentioned that to my husband, and he searched some old Zip discs until he found a digital copy I’d forgotten was saved. We didn’t even have a Zip drive any more, they were so outdated. He had to consult with some tech guys at work, I believe, to get the manuscript off the disc. But it still wasn’t the latest version I remembered.

It’s true what they say about putting a manuscript aside and looking at it with fresh eyes. Mine was an extreme example, but I made some major changes to the plot after finding the manuscript again.

Your main character, Wendy, comes off so true and relatable. Is she fashioned after yourself?

 In some ways. I was shy at her age and I have a few of her habits, such as list making. The title came from a name I was called only a couple of times. Like Wendy, I didn’t know what it referred to at first, but I didn’t let it affect me as much as it does her. I didn’t even think of using that title until I was pretty far along on the first draft.

I love how you’ve shown your bully, John Monster and your snob Tookie to have major problems of their own. Were you able to see this other side of characters in your own school years?

 Not while I was still in school, but I wish I had. A wise person later called my attention to the fact that everyone, no matter how good their lives appear to us observers, carries burdens and sorrows and faces difficulties that would perhaps shock us.

As an artist as well, I’m completely attracted to your cover. It’s so refreshingly different. How much involvement did you have with the design?

 Thank you. My husband conceived the basic design, and my publisher’s artist carried it through. I was glad not to have to design it myself.

Are you working on a sequel to Bird Face?

I plan to write one, but I’m awaiting reader feedback on the first book. I hope readers will share their favorite characters with me so that I can be sure to incorporate them in the sequel. And I’d like there to be another small mystery within the story, for which I have an idea but am not committed. The setting will be Wendy’s freshman year of high school and may take her to another location in Louisiana or elsewhere. But no matter what, I believe Wendy will continue to discover the weird and the wonderful about herself and her fellow human beings.

Now that we’ve warmed you all up, here is an excerpt of Bird Face!

 “Bird. Face.” A whisper, but the voice rang deep. He stood against the wall just inside the door.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. With animal instinct, I turned only my eyes toward the sound. Time slowed while I walked past him, so close the breath from his sneering mouth rustled my hair.

Bird Face. Those two simple little words came from John Wilson, the tallest boy in eighth grade. A Brainiac, he reminded me of Frankenstein’s monster. Not that he was hideous or scarred or anything. Other than his block-shaped head, he looked about as ordinary as any boy could—brown hair, brown eyes, glasses. He had bony arms and wimpy shoulders. Nothing scary about that.

But he had a way of creeping up on a person. I could be in the library or the bus line, and all of a sudden, there he’d be, looming in my personal space. He acted like the monster in some old black-and-white movie. I had gotten somewhat used to that, but it was weird he decided to speak. And what the heck was a “bird face,” anyway?

I kept walking. If John-Monster expected some kind of reaction from me, he wasn’t going to get one.

I didn’t stop until I got to my desk. That’s when I noticed a swatch of yellow on the seat. Another sticky-note message. Still printed, but this time signed too.

Only words.

“A FREND”

And a bad speller, apparently. I examined the little square of paper for a few seconds. The writing still didn’t seem familiar at all. An eerie sensation like someone was watching me made me turn. But when I glanced around the room, I got nothing.

A yellow note pad would be a clue, if only I could find one. Tookie wore a yellow shirt —designer, of course. Gayle wrote in a yellow notebook. Frank grinned at me with yellow teeth. But no yellow sticky notes anywhere in sight.

Okay, it’s me again! Look on Amazon for your copy of Bird Face! And lastly, I have a question for you. During school, did you ever form an unlikely friendship, or have a likely friendship fizzle out due to differences in lifestyle?

To get in touch with Cynthia:

Email birdfacewendy@gmail.com.

 

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Hair Color of the Character That Bit You

cynthia-toneyI’ve often wondered why women and girls color their hair. And why, increasingly, men and boys do too.

I’m not talking about covering gray with a color close to your natural one. I mean a drastic change, which I admit to making every couple of years now. It didn’t start until long after I graduated from college, because it simply looked like too much work, when I already had a perfectly serviceable color. (Why do girls as young as middle-school age start altering their hair color–and why do parents let them? That may be a topic for another day.)

Highlighting, frosting/tipping, stripes of another color, all-out bleaching, Vampira black, and that burgundy color that’s found nowhere naturally on a human head. I personally haven’t tried them all, but they are so common that most of us don’t take a second look any more.

I tend to change color when: something major in my life such as employment, where I live, or a relationship changes; I feel my true personality isn’t reflected by my hair color; or I simply want to do it for fun.

I’ve been Marilyn Monroe blonde–short too. Was told I looked like Madonna, which I didn’t care for. I’ve been a fiery redhead when I had anger and aggression issues (no offense intended toward redheads). And when I wanted to look exotic or ethnic like Sophia Loren or the Native American women I saw on a trip to Santa Fe, I chose a dark brown.

So maybe I like playing a character when life becomes a little too ordinary or other changes get me down, and I use hair color to do it. I may even change color to become one of my characters in a future novel. Other writers, when attending writing events, deck out in costumes depicting their chosen genre. Some of my wonderful fantasy-writing friends enjoy wearing elf ears.

And there’s nothing wrong with us. Really.

Do you use hair color, makeup, dress, or anything else to escape from the ordinary or play a character from a book?

Where’s the Passion?

JackIsOurHero When I read fiction, I try to guess the author’s passions.  Or on which side he stands regarding issues in his story.

That happened last month when I read The Appeal by John Grisham. It was tremendous fun to look for clues concerning his personal feelings about the two sides of a fictitious legal case and the events surrounding it. Like seasonings in a gumbo, his political sympathies (he is a former Mississippi state legislator)  flavored the plot and the characters–exactly how I like it to be in a novel.

Whether I agree with the opinions of a fiction author or not, or align with his causes, I expect one or more of his passions to be revealed in his story.

I can usually distinguish between a story element carefully researched (but neither loved nor loathed) and one the author has experienced that has deeply affected him. And fiction is so much more exciting when the latter happens.

In my debut novel, Bird Face, it will probably be obvious to readers that I love dogs and creative people. And as I’ve gotten to know my Scriblerian partners on a personal level, I’ve learned of their passions, which I see woven into their manuscripts.

What love or loathing have you incorporated into a piece of fiction you’ve written, and how did you do it? Is it subtle or obvious? Whether flash fiction, short story, or novel–soon to be published or a work in progress–please share and feel free to mention the title.

cynthia-toney

A CHRISTMAS PROMISE Review (and fulfillment of my own)

As far as I could remember, I’d never read a Christmas story at Christmastime (or anytime), other than the story of Christ’s birth—until this one.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t grow up having Christmas stories read to me. Or maybe I tried reading one myself and couldn’t take it. Too sappy. Somebody once again “saves” Christmas (yawn). Or it was otherwise redundant. Who knows? Someday I would read one, I promised myself—when the right story came along.

So, what made me consider reading Tamera Lynn Kraft’s novella, A Christmas Promise? For one thing: novella, rather than full-length novel. Surely I could make time for a novella, even at this busy time of year. I was curious about current novellas in general, which were gaining popularity. But I hadn’t suddenly warmed up to Christmas stories. Tamera’s just sort of fell into my lap.

AChristmasPromise_medWeb1

Then I noticed from its description that it had a special quality I look for in any story. It would teach me something totally new. About history–my favorite subject, no less.

This was a story that takes place in  a pioneer setting, but pre-Revolutionary, right before the American Revolution. In Ohio. That was different.

The subtitle of A Christmas Promise is “A Moravian Holiday Story, Circa 1773.” The main characters, John and Anna Brunner, are missionaries for a religion I wasn’t familiar with. I was interested. They are in Ohio to convert a tribe of Native Americans I never heard of before. Even better. I started reading.

I was fascinated by some of the Brunner family’s Moravian  customs, including building a Christmas tree from a pyramid-shaped frame filled with branches, instead of chopping down a live tree. I found myself wishing for additional information about the Moravian religion worked into the story in the beginning, but that didn’t prevent me from understanding and appreciating the characters or the plot. I took a short break to learn more about the Moravian church on the Internet.

The Brunners and their children left Pennsylvania for Ohio to share the Gospel with the Lenape tribe, and that action is central to both their internal and external conflicts. I won’t spoil your enjoyment of this touching story  by giving further details about A Christmas Promise, but I longed for more facts about the Lenape (which I will research at a later time). History of the natives in both North and South America has always held a special attraction for me. However, if this novella had contained enough information about both the Moravians and the Lenape to completely satisfy me, I think it would have ceased to qualify as a novella.

Then I probably would’ve convinced myself that I was too busy to read it at all this Christmas. Think of what I would’ve missed.

(Plus, I’m now primed for a Christmas novel.)

Note: The author of A Christmas Promise, Tamera Lynn Kraft,  is a recipient of the 2007 National Children’s Leaders Association Shepherd’s Cup for lifetime achievement in children’s ministry. You can contact Tamera online at Word Sharpeners Blog: http://tameralynnkraft.com or her Website: http://tameralynnkraft.net

Do novellas appeal to you more than full-length novels at Christmas—or any other time? Why? If you plan to read this one, what attracted you to it?

Ideas From the Most Ordinary Sources

classifiedsIt doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional novelist or a middle-school student assigned to write a short story. To find new character, conflict, and plot ideas, pay close attention to ordinary life around you. More precisely, look at what people buy, sell, and eat.

At lunchtime—either at school or work—notice the selections, whether purchased on site or bagged and brought from home.

Chili, corn chips, and baklava? You may imagine a south Texan introvert living with his Greek grandmother, and there’s the start of an interesting situation. (So as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, begin with a compliment if you’re unsure what a particular delicacy is. “That looks/smells good. What’s it called?”)

In a grocery or discount store checkout line, strange combinations of purchases may inspire you.

Bandages and a set of kitchen knives (for a clumsy chef?)

Tomatoes and an opera CD (for a disgruntled patron of the arts?)

Now I’m thinking of a story about a chef who is also a disgruntled patron of the arts and goes on a killing spree at an opera house.

And don’t forget to look in the classified ads for hidden gems.

There’s one from many years ago I’ll always remember.

FOR SALE: Loveseat and a pair of women’s motorcycle boots

Now that’s a writing prompt.

What kind of ordinary thing or situation has sparked an idea for a character or story for you?

Using the Arts to Create Setting by Cynthia T. Toney

photo credit: cuellar via photopin cc

photo credit: cuellar via photopin cc

Perhaps you’ve written a middle-grade or young teen novel.  Or you’re reading one.

It’s natural for many of the scenes to take place at school or at someone’s home. Or maybe at a sporting event. Those places make up a big chunk of a young person’s world if he doesn’t drive.

But I love it when a story surprises me with a scene that takes place at an art fair or museum, a dance recital, concert, or movie theater (some do consider movies “art”).  Although a change of scenery can play a part in the plot, it doesn’t have to—not for me, anyway.  I simply enjoy reading and writing about young characters’ interactions in believable artsy settings where they might easily find themselves even if they don’t drive.

Opportunities abound for vivid writing to engage readers. Scene descriptions that employ sensory detail such as color, smell, sound—and often taste—make what’s going on with the characters in a scene all the more exciting. And there’s occasion for characters’ reactions to their surroundings, or use of elements in their surroundings as props, to reveal their personalities and relationships or show character growth.

Reading and writing novels that use the arts to create setting have been a fun way for me to learn about some of the arts I’m less familiar with. Whether a character visits a junkyard sculpture booth at an art fair or attends a street music performance, you may find an art-loving character a lot more interesting to read and write about.

If that character is a jock or a farm kid or a villain, even better.

Is there a novel you’ve read in which one or more of the arts added to the pleasure of reading the story?

Cynthia Toney

Cynthia Toney