Cynthia Lord is a writer and former middle-school teacher who lives in coastal Maine with her husband, two children, and a white-tornado Bichon Frise named Flurry.
Her debut novel, RULES, was recently hailed as "a heartwarming first novel" by Booklist, and she won the 2004 SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant for an Unpublished Writer.
I vividly remember being ten years old, lying on our pier and wearing a damp bathing suit, daydreaming about Borrowers and Secret Gardens. So when I sat down to write my first book for children, I knew it would be a middle-grade novel written for that girl I used to be.
I began RULES in 2000, and it has been rewritten many times. The book's heart never changed, but the words and scenes evolved many times.
I am the mother of two children, one of whom has autism. A family that includes a child with severe special needs has unique dynamics, and I wanted to both explore and celebrate that difference.
It was both easier and harder. The details were certainly familiar, and I knew all the shades of emotion. Within any life-changing experience are many contradictions and hues: humor, poignancy, loss, anger, etc. I think it was harder that I knew the true weight of responsibility I carried in writing about this subject.
The family in RULES is not my own family, but I did base some of David's quirks on behaviors my son once had. For example, my son went through a period of repeating lines from books, and one author he loved was Arnold Lobel. There is a powerful grace in his books, and it always moved me to hear his words used as communication from my child.
I'm a "fixer" in my life. I like to see a problem and solve it. So it's been a humbling journey to accept some things are bigger than I am. And the whole question of "As a family, where do we fit in?" is another I've felt along the way, having to keep one foot in two very different worlds. So the issues of RULES were my attempt to explore those hard questions for myself.
Catherine's voice came to me immediately. The first words I typed were "At my house we have a rule," and everything came from that seed—the title, the focus, even Catherine, herself. That sentence was cut later on, but it was the doorway that led to everything else.
To learn about my characters, I have a list of questions I ask myself (What does she want? Why hasn't she achieved that before the first chapter? etc.) but mostly I discover my characters through writing about them.
The challenge was making sure the humor didn't deflate the tension. Humor is a release valve, and I had to be careful not to let it slow my steady climb of conflict.
For me, humor is most memorable as the complement to another emotion. I do enjoy books that simply make me laugh, but I never forget those books that make me both laugh and cry. That's a character I have traveled with and one who stays with me when the book is over.
Catherine makes a list of rules for her brother to help him remember important things like "If you can only choose one, pick carefully." And my personal favorite, "A boy can take off his shirt to swim, but not his shorts." What are some rules for yourself?
One personal rule I tell children who ask me for writing advice is:
Those are the things that move me forward as a writer. And here's a revision rule I had to learn:
It can be tempting to think a single book can hold everything I have to say about a situation or subject (especially if it's one I care deeply about), but even beautiful or true things may need to be cut to keep the pacing strong.
It was in November 2001, and I remember it was close to suppertime when the phone rang. I scribbled notes during that call because I knew I'd never remember everything, and I still have those notes. My hand was shaking so badly, the words don't even look like my handwriting!
To celebrate, I bought myself a tourmaline ring with some of my first advance. It's a tangible and lovely reminder of selling my first novel.
I love the discovery. Even though I plot ahead of time, I'm never sure what will happen as the words start arranging themselves within a scene.
Money, time, having to "go there" emotionally on someone else's schedule — all those things are challenges for me.
Don't be afraid to try something, even if you think it won't work. Sometimes I am not the best judge of what my story needs and trying a suggestion can open a new possibility.
I have a regular writing time very early in the morning before my family wakes. It's a time of day that is very special to me, because it is wholly mine. I also write at two of my favorite libraries from time to time. That feels like going to a job, and sometimes I need that structure (and to be away from my e-mail :-)).
Thank you! I'm working on another middle-grade "heart and humor" novel that I hope fans of RULES will also like.
I did my first school visit in February at a middle school library and had a wonderful time. Overnight travel isn't always easy for me, but I am able to do some local visits and also cyber things like chats and e-mail exchanges with classrooms or book groups. I do have a discussion guide for RULES and a link to contact me at my website: www.cynthialord.com.