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Cindy Callaghan: “If you can’t get your bump in a chair, you can’t write a book”

The first thing needed is a well-written story. By well-written, I mean all of the basics: spelling, grammar, punctuation, lay-out. You can have the most genius idea in the world, but if you aren’t adhering to the traditional grammar rules and you’re buried in typos, no one will take you seriously. This took me a […]

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The first thing needed is a well-written story. By well-written, I mean all of the basics: spelling, grammar, punctuation, lay-out. You can have the most genius idea in the world, but if you aren’t adhering to the traditional grammar rules and you’re buried in typos, no one will take you seriously. This took me a very long time to learn. I am a terrible typist and an awful proof-reader, and even though I was an English major, I make LOTS of spelling and grammatical errors. I really try not to, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort. The story also needs to be well-told. By well-told story I mean a unique story idea with rich, colorful characters involved in an intriguing plot, set somewhere interesting.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy Callaghan.

Cindy is an award-winning author of two tween series: The mega-popular Just Add Magic and Just Add Magic 2: Potion Problems, the five Lost in books: London, Ireland, Paris, Rome, and Hollywood, and two stand-alone: the award-winning Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ’Em Dead and Saltwater Secrets coming this April (2020).

Cindy’s books magically capture the tween voice and experience.

Her first book, the much-loved Just Add Magic, is now a breakout Amazon Original live-action series in its fifth season.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I’ve been writing forever. In third grade, I wrote my first play. I was always into short stories, scenes and characters, and of course, in my teens, lots of melodramatic poetry. Then, I put creative writing aside for college, grad school, a career wherein I clawed at the glass ceiling, and building a family.

Then about sixteen years ago, I saw an ad for a writing class. It was always something that I wanted to get back into, so I took it, and the rest is history. That catapulted me into my first novel, a fabulous suspense thriller for adults, which I continue to work on to this day. The class became a critique group and one novel became another and another, and finally, I finished Kelly Quinn’s Secret Cooking Club — the original title for Just Add Magic — which went on to become two novels, and an Amazon Original Series now in its fifth season.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I think it’s interesting to look at things from the beginning, starting with a confession for you: I was not a reader as a kid, as a teen, or a young adult. I consider myself a “reluctant reader.”

At about 26 years old, I was roommate-less for the first time, and I was finishing my MBA and tired of textbooks and trade magazines. I wanted to read something purely for entertainment.

I can’t remember the circumstances, but I found myself pursuing book jackets in Borders. There was a new release called The Poet by Michael Connelly. The cover looked good. I’d never heard of the author, but I’d never heard of any mainstream authors.

I bought it, and read it…the WHOLE book…cover to cover. I loved it so much that I went back and spent my precious waitressing dollars on everything else written by that author. I built a relationship with the character, Detective Harry Bosch, and followed him from case to case. I quickly branched into The Firm (Grisham), Disclosure (Crichton), The Body Farm (Cornwell), Orchid Beach (Woods). I loved them too.

So, the mountain on my nightstand grew with every book thoseauthors wrote. I became a real mystery lover…still am, but I’ve diversified. I read and/or listen to nearly fifty books per year. And the more I read, the more my left-brain re-awakened making me want to write again.

It all comes back to Connelly’s The Poet. It convinced me that I could enjoy reading a book. And, interestingly, Connelly and I are now Amazon Studio siblings, making us kind of related, only he doesn’t know it.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I faced the challenge of losing my first literary agent — and that misfortune ended up being a critical turning point in my career.

My book Just Add Magic landed me a literary agent and my first publishing contract. Shortly after the book’s release, I lost that agent and Just Add Magic was unrepresented, meaning that all the rights reverted to me.

Now, you have to understand that I didn’t know what to do with a book’s rights, but I had a clear vision of what Kelly Quinn and her friends’ secret cooking club could be. I could see the scenes clearly in my head.

Enter: College Roommate. Like everyone, I friended my freshman college roommate on Facebook. We’d gone to the University of Southern California to be film writers, but…yadda yadda…I got an MBA and have worked for twenty years in pharmaceuticals, but she stayed in LA and wrote for animation. With an eye toward a career change she’d moved back East, not far from me. So, we lunched. I shared my sitch and she said, “Talk to my agent and see if she has some advice for Just Add Magic.” I sent her agent a copy of the book.

Months passed.

One day I got a call from California: “I’d love to represent it.” She submitted Just Add Magic to studios.

Weeks passed.

I was at the International Thriller Writers meeting in New York City. (Michael Connelly was a speaker, which is kind of ironic because I love Connelly books, and soon after he announced that he was developing Bosch with Amazon). In the evening, I attended a session called “Book to TV,” when my agent called: “Amazon wants to option it!”

That option led to a pilot and a greenlight for the series.

So, if I hadn’t lost that first agent and inherited the rights to the book, none of this would’ve happened.

Bizarre, right?

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m always working on stuff. I work on several projects simultaneously. I have multiple TV/Film concepts on the market and in a few weeks, I’m going to LA to pitch studios in person. Saltwater Secrets comes out in April and my next novel is out on submission.

I have multiple partial novels in my trunk right now, and every week something gets added to my Idea Notebook.

In addition, I’m beginning to enter into collaborations for the first time in my career.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

The story is empowering for girls and kids in general because basically, the adults can’t solve this mystery without them.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

The first thing needed is a well-written story. By well-written, I mean all of the basics: spelling, grammar, punctuation, lay-out. You can have the most genius idea in the world, but if you aren’t adhering to the traditional grammar rules and you’re buried in typos, no one will take you seriously. This took me a very long time to learn. I am a terrible typist and an awful proof-reader, and even though I was an English major, I make LOTS of spelling and grammatical errors. I really try not to, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort. The story also needs to be well-told. By well-told story I mean a unique story idea with rich, colorful characters involved in an intriguing plot, set somewhere interesting.

  • A unique story idea (“concept”)
  • With rich, colorful characters
  • An intriguing plot
  • An interesting setting

Next, writers need a feedback loop. I think you can have neither a well-written nor a well-told story without a safe critique group or feedback from multiple places.

Third, the author needs a strong query. A strong query letter with a tight synopsis is needed. These two documents can be short but can take an eternity to write. And it is important that they are very polished. I had my query and synopsis critiqued several times before it was ready to send out. Many articles about writing query letters are available online.

I believe to be successful the author needs an advocate. If you are unfamiliar with the publishing industry, you probably need someone who can represent you, an agent. Once you have a solid project to shop around, consider attending conferences. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land and to familiarize yourself with literary agents. This is the route I went. Of course, authors can query publishers directly and also self-publish.

Lastly, a writer needs a time and a place to write.

  • Time: If you can’t get your bump in a chair, you can’t write a book. Finding time is difficult for most writers because we are plagued by multiple competing priorities. But, I promise you that if you don’t find the time to write, you won’t write.
  • Space: Finding a space to write is important. If you have a home office, you are way ahead of most people. I often find that I concentrate better outside of my house and I do a lot of writing at cafes, diner, and even in my car. Get out and experiment until you can find a space where you can put your other obligations in the back of your mind.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

My biggest skill is my “drive,’ if you can call that a habit. It’s the will to persevere. I want this and I’m willing to work very very hard to make it happen. I wasn’t a great writer when I started, and I’m still not, but like muscles, the skill gets stronger with practice. I think I’m a better writer now than I was ten years ago, and I get better with every project.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I try to write books that girls will want to read. In a nutshell, that’s my purpose. I’m not out to win writing awards or to be in a literary Hall of Fame. While that’s certainly nice, it’s not my mission.

I believe that girls like to read page-turners with mystery and intrigue and relatable characters. The setting is super important, as you can see from the amazing popularity of the Lost In books. And, humor…if there’s one thing I know, it’s “funny.”

Saltwater Secrets is written to be binge-able. I want tweens to binge through Saltwater Secrets and go searching for their next book

It’s worth restating: I want girls to want to read.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: CindyCallaghanAuthor

Twitter: CindyCallaghan

Instagram: CindyCallaghanWrites

Pintrest: CindyCallaghan

LinkedIn: CindyCallaghan

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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