Authors on the Verge: Meet Fran Cannon Slayton, middle grade novelist

Fran Cannon Slayton
Fran Cannon Slayton

This week, we have the sensational Fran Cannon Slayton. Fran is a former child sex abuse prosecutor, a former legal publisher, and a stay-at-home mom.  She has been known to sing in rock and roll bands, play trumpet, do an incredible party trick where she flips her feet around backwards, and hop on a pogo stick 1000+ times in a row. (Full disclosure on that last one:  it happened quite awhile ago.  Like, decades.)  Fran enjoys coffee, working out at the gym, and Mexican food (actually, any type of food).  She was the 2005 Albemarle County Women’s Hog Calling Champion and has a trophy to prove it.

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton
When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

And here’s the scoop on Fran’s book, When the Whistle Blows (Philomel).

Jimmy Cannon is growing up in an Irish American family in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, during the 1940s.  He does all the things boys do in the small mountain town:  plays a mean game of football, pulls the unforgettable Halloween prank with his friends in “the Platoon,” and promises to head off into the woods on the first day of hunting season – no matter what.  He also knows that his father belongs to a secret society, and is determined to uncover the mysteries behind it!  But it is a midnight encounter with a train that shows Jimmy the man his father really is.  At its heart, When the Whistle Blows is a story about a boy and his father in a time when trains reigned supreme.

Now let’s start the interview. When you received your offer, what happened?

My husband took me out for the bottle of Dom Perignon that he’d promised me 16 years earlier when I first told him I wanted to write a novel.  We had a great dinner, too!

So now that you have a contract, what’s it like to be on the other side-on the verge of publication? What does it feel like to be official?

Honestly?  It’s been like a dream come true!  It seems like everyday new and exciting things happen.  I’ve been through the editing process with one of the best editors in the children’s book world, Patricia Lee Gauch.  I’ve gotten to write an acknowledgement page to thank everyone who has helped me along the way, and have gotten to hold my own galleys in my hands.  And I’ve had people I respect a great deal say nice things about my writing, which of course is absolutely thrilling.  The world has become smaller – I’ve met authors and librarians from all over the United States, Canada and beyond, and I’m looking forward to doing book signings across the country when my book comes out in June 2009.  These things are all like gifts.  Every single day.

One of the most gratifying things has been that the railroading community has responded with appreciation to my work, and people have gone way out of their way to help me get the word out about it.  In fact, people in the publishing and bookselling communities, the kidlitosphere, railfans, teachers, and many others have been incredibly kind and generous throughout the entire process.  The predominant feeling for me in being “official” is definitely gratitude.

Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.

There is a short story and a long story.  The short story is that I went to the Highlights Foundation’s legendary Writers Workshop at Chautauqua in 2006 and met Patricia Lee Gauch, who liked my then-incomplete novel, offered to work with me, and eventually bought my book.

The long story is that I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was in grade school.  I started writing my first novel just before I entered law school, and it took me 13 years to manage to write 100 pages of it. When my daughter was born and I decided to stop working outside the home I finally got serious about my writing. But rather than finishing my original 100 pages, I started a new book.  (I didn’t want to be discouraged if the 100 pages I’d spent 13 years of my life writing didn’t stand up to the critiques I knew I’d be receiving!)  So I started When the Whistle Blows and joined SCBWI, where I met best-selling author Ellen Hopkins, who became my friend and mentor.  I became a finalist in the 2005 SCBWI Work-in-Process grant, met the gals in my critique group, signed with my wonderful agent, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and met Patti Gauch at the Highlights Foundation’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

And here’s our favorite question. How many rejections did you receive IN GENERAL (not just for this book) before you landed your first major publishing contract?

  • 0-10
  • 11-25
  • 26-50
  • 51-100
  • 100+

Tell us about one of your most heart-breaking rejections and about one of your best.

No rejections broke my heart.  My best rejection came from Kristin Daly at HarperCollins for a graphic picture book I’d submitted to her.  She wrote me a personal note and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I read it everyday for weeks.  Out loud.

How long did it take to sell your books, from putting the first words on the page to receiving an offer?

  • 0-3 months
  • 3-6 months
  • 6 months to 1 year
  • 1 year – 2 years
  • 2 years – 3 years
  • 3 years+
  • The manuscript has been around longer than I have.

Prior to selling your books, you were …

A stay-at-home mom

Now that you’ve sold some books, you plan to …

Not change a thing

I want to keep doing what I’m doing – writing and being a mom and wife.  I love every moment of every day.  It doesn’t get much better than that!

What are some of the new things you worry about now that you have a contract?

You mean besides saying something stupid in an interview? J Honestly, I try as a rule not to worry.  It does nothing positive and is just an energy suck.  I do hope my book finds its audience.  I wonder what the reviews are going to be like.  And I think about the next book I’m writing, and hope I can keep improving as a writer as I move forward in my career.

If you’ve already begun or have finished the editorial process with your publisher, let you us know what that’s been like.

It was great!  I love editing – in fact, I have to really work to shut down my internal editor as I write my first draft or else I edit a piece to death and never actually get anything written.  I loved hearing Patti’s thoughts on what did and did not need tweaking.  Editing was more a process of shaping the story than a detailed analysis of text or grammar.  We were looking at the overarching narrative more often than not; making sure the groundwork was laid for emotions and feelings and themes.  It was a bit like weaving thread into an already completed blanket, to strengthen it.

What editing was NOT was a big bad session with a red pen, and initially that surprised me.  I found the editing process with Patti Gauch to be gentle and – I’m sorry to use this word – but truly brilliant.  And strategic.  More often than not she merely asked me probing questions; gave me things to think about.  Nothing was changed without a reason.  The editing was very purposeful.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Don’t make your goal “being published.”  Being published depends upon the actions of other people, and you don’t have those in your control.  What you have in your control is whether you write or not.  Whether or not you finish your novel.  Whether you study your craft or not.  Whether you grow as a person or not.  Whether you love what you’re doing or not.  Focus on all those things, and it will be much more likely that the “being published” part will follow.  And if it doesn’t?  You will still have had a heck of a good time along the way.

Any inspiring quotes you live by?

I really love this quote by Teddy Roosevelt.  I think it is excellent advice for an aspiring author, especially when writing a first draft.  I’ve edited it below so it is addressed to a female audience:

“It is not the critic who counts:  not the [one] who points out how the strong [person] stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends [herself] for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if [she] fails, at least [she] fails while daring greatly, so that [her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

What is one of the biggest myths in children’s book publishing that you wish aspiring writers would just forget about?

“Show, don’t tell” is advice writers hear often, but it is only part of the story. It’s true, you do have to “show” the story – you can’t just say “he felt bad,” you have to illustrate it in your character’s expressions and actions and make it part of a story that can be envisioned or imagined.

But you also have to “tell” what is going on internally with a character.  And that’s what the “show, don’t tell” advice doesn’t, well, “tell” you.  Sometimes you have to give little summaries for the reader – some direction or understanding about the overall meaning of the story; markers as to what growth is occurring inside your characters.  So I guess I’d change the advice from “show, don’t tell” to “show AND tell.”  It’s a balance.

Aside from WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS<—shameless plug, are there any other books on craft you recommend?

I love Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle.

This concludes our interview with our latest author, Fran Cannon Slayton. We wish her much success with her debut novel When the Whistle Blows.

To see what Fran is up to these days, visit her website at or her blog at

3 thoughts on “Authors on the Verge: Meet Fran Cannon Slayton, middle grade novelist

  1. Wonderful interview! I loved Fran’s enthusiasm and positive attitude on her road to publication! It’s nice to see. And I love the book! Can’t wait to share this with my 9 year old, who is fascinated with trains! Thanks.

  2. This is so encouraging…I have written all of my life and love writing every day. I have been discouraged lately while still researching the process of getting from A to B. After attending a writers conference my network links started buzzing a bit. Fran is informative and encouraging. I don’t like the 2-3 year idea but the truth is refreshing.

    Thank you,

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