Browse Tag by Writing

Musings on drafting, editing, querying, submitting, and publishing in general.


We need Princess Elizabeth’s story

The news over the past few weeks has been startling.  Starting on October 5, when the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, a cascade of women and men have come forward, breaking years or even decades of silence, to speak about harassment and assault by powerful and influential men.  Harvey Weinstein was just the beginning.

Then the Roy Moore story broke.  I got chills when I read the details.  A 14-year-old pursued by a 30-something man.  And when the apologizers appeared, those who excused Roy Moore’s behavior, the internet started posting pictures of themselves 14-year-olds.

This story sounds very familiar.  It’s the basic plot of my novel, The Princess’s Guide to Staying Alive.

When Elizabeth Tudor (the future Virgin Queen) was 13, Henry VIII died and she went to live with her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.  Katherine Parr remarried quickly enough to turn heads.  She married her old flame, Thomas Seymour.  Seymour was the uncle to the king and an ambitious social climber.  His motives may not be possible to nail down exactly, but he began making predatory sexual advances on his step-daughter Elizabeth.  Katherine was having a difficult pregnancy and her marriage was fraying.  Elizabeth was the sister of the king, but the bastard daughter of a beheaded queen.  She was a young woman in a vulnerable position, and she became Seymour’s target.

In the summer of 1548, Elizabeth was sent away from her stepmother’s home to live with a family friend.  Katherine Parr had finally realized the extent of Seymour’s actions.  After being sent away, Elizabeth would never see her stepmother again.  Katherine Parr died in childbirth in late summer 1548.  In early 1549, Thomas Seymour was arrested and charged with treason.  Thrown into his long list of charges was conspiring to marry Elizabeth after Katherine Parr died.  That charge was treason for Elizabeth–royal women weren’t allowed to negotiate their own marriages.  That was the sole purview of King and his council.

The rumors of Thomas’s behavior with Elizabeth were all over court by this point.  There were certain factions who thought that if they could get Elizabeth to confess, she would be charged with treason and perhaps beheaded, thereby eliminating another heir to the throne.  Sir Robert Tyrwhit, a local knight, was sent to Elizabeth’s house to interrogate her.  It’s clear from his letters to the Lord Protector that he thought that Elizabeth would buckle and confess.  After all, she was just a 15-year-old, orphaned bastard.

But here is what this story is really about.  It’s about strength and survival.  It’s about how a girl with an education defeats a grown man.  Because that’s what she did.  Robert Tyrwhit lived in her house, had her ladies spy on her, and used every tactic he could think of to get Elizabeth to slip up and implicate herself in treason.  He belittled her.  He berated her.  He pretended to befriend her.

And Elizabeth outsmarted him.  She only told him things he already knew, she played weak, she played sad.  She was patient.  She didn’t lose her cool.  Her extensive education and training in oration and argumentation kept her always stay one step ahead of his tactics.  She wore him down.  She outlasted him.

What I want everyone to know is that Elizabeth’s story is one of triumph and survival.  You need to look at those portraits, the Rainbow and the Pelican, and you need to know that you are looking at a woman who survived.  She survived and she reigned.  And for some, they might read her story and feel less alone.

I’m sort of biased because I wrote it, but I think that my book is important.  It’s timely.  And I hope that it makes it out into the world.


SCWBI Conference for the win!

My hope was that the SCBWI Midsouth conference would bust my funk…and it did!

There’s so much to say, but I have to begin by sharing that I feel very lucky to live in this region.  Ruta Sepetys won the Crystal Kite award and her speech was awesome.  She spoke at the school where I teach a few years back when we read Between Shades of Gray for the all school read.  She’s a great public speaker, despite saying that she prefers not to leave her house.  She said that she was standing there because she’s a “supported failure.”  I absolutely love that concept and can’t wait to talk about it with my students.

Laurent Linn gave the key note and it was everything I needed to hear.  He was inspiring.  He was humble and warm.  Hearing about his journey as an artist and story-teller was really powerful, and a great start to the conference.

I went to so many amazing sessions.  I learned a lot and my head was buzzing with ideas.  I love the feeling of having ideas!  I felt like manuscripts that were languishing in my stack suddenly got a second chance at life!  Ninja Queen lives!  (I really should make shirts that say that.)

Katie Carella gave a great presentation on the 4-year-old Branches line of early readers at Scholastic.  I absolutely loved that session.  I learned a lot and I loved her keynote with Jessica Young.  My son loves the Haggis and Tank books, so it was great to see how those books came into the world.  (I’m going to submit Ninja Queen to her.  Ninja Queen lives!  Gotta get some T-shirts!)

Linda Camacho did a great session on YA lit that fed my academic soul as well as my writer’s soul.  She talked about the origin of YA lit and what the trends have been like for each decade since then.  I appreciated her thoughtful and balanced outlook.

I had a great face-to-face critique that confirmed that the edits and revisions I’ve put into PRINCESS’S GUIDE over the last month were the right direction.  That’s a great feeling.  I can see how much I’ve learned about writing over the past 6 years.

I connected with old friends and made some new ones.  We’re already adding to our critique group and planning our next meeting.

My amazing husband and co-parent flew solo with the rest of our clan, and I was relieved that the weekend went smoothly in my absence.  This is the last conference where I’ll have to pump in the car in between sessions–yay.  I’m so happy that I was able to do this conference and that I am also a supported failure.

Based on my critique, I’ve put in a few more revisions on my YA novel, and I’m working on polishing my submission for Katie Carella at Branches.  I feel energized as I move into NaNoWriMo with my new middle grade project.  I signed up on the NaNoWriMo website and finally settled on a working title: Normal Girl (Reluctantly) Saves the Day.

Okay.  My batteries are fully charged and I’m ready to set off!

Teaching, Writing

On being in a funk

Yesterday I described my current mood to a student and she said, “You’re in a funk, Mrs. Griswold.”

She’s right, and she named it well.  I’m in a funk.  It may the broken nights of sleep due to the 9 month old and his cold.  It might be the new class I’m teaching.  But it’s really about rejection.  This week brought two rejections from full requests.  I call them “je ne sais quoi” rejections.  “I just didn’t click with this” or “I just didn’t connect.”  This came on the heels of me abandoning a best seller, a book I fully expected to love.  And I didn’t.  I couldn’t connect, so I set itdown.

I hate it and I get it.

I think about my students who probably get back at least 2 pieces of critiqued work a day, maybe more.  And they don’t get to wallow, they have to keep moving forward onto the next unit or assignment.  So it’s a good reminder that I’m in a place of adult privilege.  I get to choose when I reach out for feedback and when I don’t.  Boohoo, Mrs. Griswold.

I printed a piece from The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.”  It was a 6 paragraph balm.  A boon.  He talked about learning French.  The capital S Struggle.  He quoted Carolyn Forche who said, “I’m going to have it.”  (I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I think it would be that sentence.)

The students loved Coates’s piece.  They liked the line, “But I also feel like I am getting better at stumbling.”

Reading that with them lifted me out of my funk, somewhat.  My gloom stems from my fear that the manuscript done for, that the error is fatal.  The worst feeling is not knowing what to fix or work on or learn.  I need to feel like I have a path out.

Maybe I just can’t have any of those answers.  I just have to wait and deal with what comes.

And begin again.  Again again.  I’ve got my next idea in the hopper.  (Is that the right metaphor?  Like a train hopper car?  Is there a grain hopper somewhere in my mind as well?)  I’m going to write something new during NaNoWriMo.

I told a student today that I feel best when I’m creating.  Because you can’t judge and create simultaneously.  Or at least, I can’t.  When I am making something, I have a beautiful feeling of flow.  I like producing.  It staves off the despair.

I’ve got my SCBWI conference this weekend.  I know that will fill my heart.  Maybe I’ll see the path out then.  Maybe there will be good news when I get through the weeds and the vines.

Also a nap.  I hope there’s a nap soon.

Teaching, Writing

Lab Girl Review


I remember really well when I first heard about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.  I was driving across town between teaching classes, trying to make it to a PreK tour on time.  I was listening to On Point on NPR and I heard an interview wherein Jahren read an excerpt of Lab Girl.  I had been swearing at the traffic that was making me late, but listening to Jahren read aloud from her book, I burst into tears.  She has a line that just cut me right to the quick.  It’s from a passage that is a few pages long where every paragaph begins “My lab is…” Here’s the quote I remember bringing me to tears:

There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me.  the door is locked and I know everyone who has a key.  Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, thelab has become the place where I can be the real me. (19)

I had to jog across the street to the school from my parked car, wiping my eyes and sniffing.  I made it to my tour just a few minutes late, and I knew I needed to read that book.

I had a baby in December of last year and I finally got my chance to read it this summer when I used my Christmas gift card to Parnassus from my in-laws.  It did not disappoint!

(Sometimes I find it extra hard to write about a book I really loved.  It’s almost too hard to articulate what my heart is saying, so bear with me.)

Lab Girl is the memoir of a Paleobotanist.  She studies ancient plant fossils, and sometimes living fossils.  She does some geology, too, but plants are her passion.  Her book begins with her as a child in her father’s lab, but it quickly zooms forward and follows her in college, grad school and then working as a researcher and professor at a bunch of universities.

I love the structure of Lab Girl.  The chapters alternate between botany and memoir.  So, the odd numbers would be chapters about how plants grow, how roots work, how plants communicate.  Some of it was basic science, but usually she jumped off of the well-explained basics to talk about cutting edge plant science.  But these chapters weren’t like a text book, they were like poetic love letters to trees and plants.  I loved reading them.

I also enjoyed the memoir sections.  The big themes were never having enough money, being lonely, impostor syndrome, staking your claim as a woman at the table.  So, you know, the same issues most professional women I know deal with.  That was what was so great and relatable.  She was really honest and open to her readers.  She talked about her struggles with mental health as well.  Those topics didn’t dominate the book, and there were times when she was holding back a bit, but I think she balanced the elements well.  The variety made this book a very enjoyable read.

I’m going to use a few excerpts from this with my AP Language students next year.  AP Language and Composition focuses on argument, rhetorical devices and language.  This book is chock full of lyrical, narrative nonfiction that uses language in powerful ways.  I’m actually going to pair a chapter she has on trees to a chapter of Sandra Cisneros semi-autobiographical novel The House on Mango Street, “Four Skinny Trees.”

What I really love about this book is that she is a very poetic, creative scientist.  At schools, the disciplines tend to get so segregated and I think that sometimes students feel like you can’t be a creative writer if you are good at math and science, and all poets must hate numbers.  Not true!  I don’t bring it up often, but I was a very strong math and science student both in high school and college.  I got A’s in Chemistry and Calculus in college and loved those classes.

Jahren has a strong sense of character as well.  Bill is a huge part of the story and I enjoyed getting to know him.  The chain smoking lab tech of her college days was also really vivid and alive on the page.

I also love a book that uses swearing well.  This definitely falls into that category.  I found myself repeating some lines of dialogue or narration out loud, either because they moved me or made me laugh.

Lab Girl is an excellent read and I highly recommend it, whether or not you’ve ever enjoyed science.  In fact, Jahren begins the book by telling you to think of a tree you know or look out your window at a tree.  Observe it.  Tada!  You’re a scientist.  Her book was welcoming and warm and I loved it from start to finish.


When primary sources make you cry

I’ve spent the last year getting to know Elizabeth Tudor.  I have many posts coming about what I read and learned.  But, I feel as though I’ve come to know her.

In particular, I’ve focused on Elizabeth from age 13-15, from Henry VIII’s death to the year after Katherine Parr’s death in childbirth.  I teach English to girls of exactly that age, and after 10 years of teaching, I think I’ve learned a lot about the developing minds of teenage girls.  I adore teaching in an all-girls school, and I really love watching my student make discoveries and find their voices.  They are so smart, so funny, so hard working.  If you need a little hope for humanity, come to my classroom and see the women of the future leading a discussion around my big oval table.

So, my lens when I’m researching and writing about Elizabeth Tudor is to imagine her as one of my students.  Let me lay out what a whopper of a life this particular teenager would bring to my classroom:

  • Mother dead, beheaded for adultery and treason.
  • Beheading was ordered by father.
  • Father just died.
  • Blended family: total of 3 kids, all with different moms, all those moms are dead.
  • Little brother just became king and is now totally distant and inaccessible.
  • Older sister is 17 years older and there’s some personal and religious tension.

Over the course of those years, 1546-1549, Elizabeth would move in with her stepmother who would then die in childbirth.  Her governess, Kat Ashley, who’d been with her since she was 3, would be thrown in the Tower, and Elizabeth herself would get accused of treason.  Starting in January 1549, Elizabeth was interrogated daily by a grown man living in her house for 2 months.  Friends, she was only 15 at this point.  Can you imagine a student in your classroom with that kind of home life?

In the course of my research, I read transcripts of two letters Elizabeth wrote while being interrogated under suspicion of treason–and remember she was without a parent or even a governess for support.  One letter in particular was written on the 7th of March, 1549 and was written to the Lord Protector.  Elizabeth’s brother was king, but he was still very young, so a Protector was appointed to rule while he came of age.  The purpose of her letter is to argue for the release of her governess, Kat, from the Tower.  Kat Ashley was like a mother to Elizabeth, not a perfect one, but the only constant she’d had in her tumultuous childhood.  There had been no evidence to formally charge Elizabeth with treason (not that Sir Robert Tyrwhit didn’t try to wring some out during her daily interrogations) and yet still her governess was locked in the Tower.  The same Tower where her mother had awaited execution 13 years earlier.

Can you imagine the agony of waiting and wondering what would come of Kat, the agony of a 15-year-old girl uncertain of the way forward, whose reputation had just been publicly dragged through the mud?

All I could find of this letter was typed transcripts.  I’m not joking when I say I found the edge of the Internet.  I found it.  There was not a digital image of that original manuscript anywhere on the Internet.  So, I went to that good ole citation in the back of the books I had been reading.  The manuscript was at the British Library.  Not all of their collection is digitized, so I had to make a special request to have the letter photographed and sent to me.  It took a little longer because they had to assess the state of the manuscript to make sure it was safe to handle without damage.  I’m guessing that had to be handled in one of those special temperature and humidity controlled rooms (I assume) and I am sure the person touching it used gloves and a gentle touch.  O that it had been me!  (Someday, friends, someday.)

A few weeks ago, I opened my email and saw the attachments–my images had arrived!  I opened them hungrily and started reading.  To see Elizabeth’s handwriting, the evidence of her frantic thoughts, to hear the scratch of the quill in my mind, trying to keep a cool head so that she could effectively write and persuade the most powerful man in the kingdom to listen to her.  And a life was riding on it.  Add to that the fact that Kat would not have ended up in the Tower if not for Elizabeth, and the guilt and fear must have been paralyzing.

Except Elizabeth wasn’t paralyzed or helpless.  That’s what’s so remarkable.  She didn’t quit.  She didn’t lay down and cry into the rug.

But, dear reader, I cried.  I cried at my laptop looking at the images.  My heart broke for that girl who could have been just another redheaded girl sitting around the table in my classroom.

Here is what it boils down to: I don’t think Elizabeth would have been the queen she was had it not been for this formative experience in her early teenage years.  These letters are the evidence.

If you’re wondering if you can see these letters, the answer is yes!  I am working with a history colleague on a digital humanities project with a website platform.  I’m going to teach a unit called “The Power of Persuasion” next year in my AP Language and Composition class that uses Elizabeth’s letters and speeches, in addition to the letters and speeches of a modern woman in politics.  Students will analyze the rhetorical devices and arguments presented by both Elizabeth I and the modern woman of their choosing.  I can’t wait to share these manuscripts with students next year.

And I will share those manuscripts with you as well.  I’m working on permission and rights currently.  I want to make sure I’m going by the book.  Stay tuned.


Writing my second novel

For the past year I’ve been simmering a few different ideas for my next big novel project.  I’m learning that I do best when I let lots of ideas hang out in my head until eventually one steps forward and takes the lead.

Right before I had a baby last December, I went to my local bookstore Parnassus (such a gem, Nashville is so lucky to have this place) and bought a new Elizabeth I biography, Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton.  I have written an Elizabeth I picture book biography, and I was interested to see Lisa Hilton’s focus on gender, imagery, and education.

A few weeks after Everett was born, I was mentally ready to read a book, so I started hanging out in his nursery with the space heater keeping it nice and toasty, and the noise machine whirring away, and reading while he slept.  I called it my warm cave of silence.

I adored the book.  Lisa Hilton writes with great style and her sentences would often knock me over, like this one: “How often in her childhood did Elizabeth hear the word bastard?” (Lisa Hilton 40).  I had to stop and read that one aloud just to let it sink in.  I really loved the way Hilton zoomed out frequently to consider the big ideas and larger context, and the way she approached each of the “characters” in Elizabeth’s life.

I realized then how much there was to Elizabeth’s life that I wanted to explore.  I bought Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Children of Henry VIII, and The Life of Elizabeth I.  I started listening to podcasts while I pushed the baby in his stroller during maternity leave, in particular I was so happy to stumble onto The History Chicks.  They, and many others, mentioned David Starkey’s biography of Elizabeth.  So I ordered that.  Then I ordered the beautiful The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I by Susan Watkins, so that I could see some images of the places and things in Elizabeth’s world.

I also realized that I needed to know more about the details of Katherine Parr’s life.  For that, I read the lovely biography by Linda Porter, Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII.  As someone who has fallen down a rabbit whole of Tudor and Elizabethan era bios, I have to say that this one was my favorite and I enjoyed Ms. Porter’s writing the best.  (If I ever met her, I think I’d be too starstruck to speak.)

I was now becoming quite the consumer of biographies of Elizabeth and those associated with her.

The most intriguing part was the differences I started to notice between the different biographies.  I started reading completely different interpretations of, say, a letter to Katherine Parr in 1544.  How could that be?

The logical next step was to read the primary sources and decide for myself.  So, I ordered The Collected Works of Elizabeth I and The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents.  In reading those, I started to wonder what the original manuscripts looked like.  Now I was searching out images of original manuscripts in Elizabeth’s own hand. There really is something special about seeing words that she herself put on paper.

I also started looking for the original state papers and privy council documents that I read snippets of in the various biographies I’d read.  What other parts of the letters and documents was each biographer leaving out?  Maybe there was something in those unquoted parts that would tell me something that I might find significant.  I’ve now learned how to use the British Library’s digital collection, and the British History Online‘s collection of state papers.  I really knew I’d hit the big time when I put in a special request to the British Library for digital images of some of the original manuscripts that weren’t available online–and I have to wait longer because the librarians need special permission to access those manuscripts.  Oh for a plane ticket to England and white gloves!  (Side note: I am still shocked that there are things that aren’t on the Internet.  I will tell you, there are things that aren’t on the Internet, including digital images of all of Elizabeth’s original letters.)

And then something funny happened as I researched.  I developed an opinion of my own.  Read one biography and you will presumably accept that biographer’s take on the subject.  Read a second, and you will notice the contradictions but feel somewhat flummoxed by it all.  By the time I was transcribing and translating 16th century primary sources and zooming in on JPEGs of manuscript photographs, I started to hear a new voice among all the clamor of biographers I’d read: my own.

This was a new experience for me, as far as researching a historical figure.

Through all this reading and research, I was outlining my story.  I put Elizabeth’s life up to her coronation into an outline.  After I did that, though, I realized that I was particularly drawn to her life from age 13 to 15, namely the Thomas Seymour incident.  Most people have never heard of this, and even most historians, unless this era is a focus, have not delved into these events.

When I realized this was becoming a focus, I got another biography, The Young Elizabeth by Alison Plowden which focuses in on Elizabeth’s younger years.  This was helpful as I really worked hard to make sure that I was right on all of my details.

As I was outlining these years of Elizabeth’s life, it just so happened that a teenage girl from my state made the national news when she was abducted by her 50-something high school teacher and a nationwide manhunt ensued.  I had an eerie feeling when I recognized the similarities between what was happening on the news and what Elizabeth went through at that age herself.

This Spring I had lots of conversations with students and colleagues about this project.  When I summarized the Katherine Parr/Thomas Seymour events when she was 14, it seemed to strike a chord.  Maybe I was on to something.

I returned to my outline and zoomed in on those two years, stripping everything else away.  And then I started waking up in the night with a sentence or two in my head that I’d quickly type into my outline.  I would have ideas at red lights that I would dictate into my phone.  I started to feel like a racehorse in the gate at the Derby, the ones who start getting restless before the gun goes off.  (Those are always the horses I cheer for.)

And when the school year ended, the gates opened and I started writing.

But what, exactly, was I writing?  If I said “historical fiction” people immediately mentioned Philippa Gregory.  No disrespect to Ms. Gregory (I love her books), but that didn’t feel like what I was trying to do.  I also couldn’t really say “Oh, I’m writing Hamilton, except not a hip hop musical,” because that’s like saying you think you’re the next Hemingway.  It makes you sound a big like a yahoo.

It came to my attention that a book was recently sold that was billed as a biographical novel. It was about a famous woman, but it focused on her teenage years.  I’ve done some more research and I’ve seen some other projects also categorized as biographical novels, and that feels like a good fit.

I could really get into a great discussion about the shifting line between non-fiction and fiction is.  Because here’s what I’ve learned this year: there isn’t one agreed upon Truth.  There’s discrepancy and different interpretations among the biographers.  So, isn’t there an element of choice and fiction in each of their biographies?

My other priority is my audience.  I’m writing for teenagers, and I know that from my experience as a teenager, and now teaching them every day, they don’t really love biographies as a genre.  There’s the occasional student who enjoys them, but she tends to be the exception.  But they also love Hamilton, because Hamilton made a founding father feel real, current, and relatable.  So, I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’m trying to make Elizabeth I feel like that for teenagers.

So, I’m writing a multi-genre, modern vernacular biographical novel with primary sources woven throughout.  I am approaching this project the way I approach my teaching.  Next year I’m going to teach a series of units on Elizabeth I in my World Literature and AP Language and Composition classes.  The kinds of tasks I might assign are the kinds of things I’ve written in my book: make a playlist for a historical figure, write a short play that dramatizes an event described in a letter, write a scene where you imagine a scenario that answers a question we have no answer for in primary sources, transcribe a historical document and then translate it into today’s vernacular.  If it helps, I’d say both Hamilton and McSweeney’s are big influences.  I have lists and satirical FAQs.  Rather than a rap battle like Hamilton and Jefferson have, I’ve written a boxing match between Elizabeth and Sir Robert Tyrwhit.

I am so excited to bring this book into the world.  Stay tuned!


Beginning again

I’ve spent the past two months querying Improbable Girl.  It’s a pretty consuming task, but I’ve reached what may be a soft stopping point.  I’m waiting.  And everyone says as soon as you send out one, you should start the next one.

And it makes sense.  The sudden flurry of submissions and research and query revisions is over and I miss the daily activity.  I’m maybe not so good at calm and bored.

It hit me that it’s been 4 years since I wrote a first draft from page one and feeling uncertain and nervous.  I’m really confident about my editing and querying abilities since I’ve been doing that for a few months.  (Remind me of this in a year or so when I haven’t queried in a while, and I feel nervous it again.)  I’m trying to recognize the natural ebb and flow that comes with the writing process.  But right now, I’m intimidated by the task, just like I was the first time.  First dates always give you flutters.

So, here we go with book #2.  Or perhaps, book #2 and #3.  I’ve got two ideas I’m feeling really pumped about.  I’ve got both cooking and we’ll see what happens.  I might bounce from one to the other, but I might really catch the wind in my sails with one and let the other idea rest.  As I said in my Process Insecurity post, I’m trying to control less and let myself find my way more.  I’ll keep you posted!




SCBWI Midsouth 2016 Conference

Last year, I told a colleague I was working on a picture book manuscript.  She’s a writer (former journalist, communications director at my current job) and she suggested I join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  I joined and I signed up for the conference last fall.  I entered my manuscript in the picture book contest, but I was too scared to sign up for a face-to-face critique.

My first conference was amazing.  The learning curve was steep because I knew very little about writing picture books, the market, and querying.  I didn’t win anything in the manuscript contest, but I met my current critique partner who invited me into her writing group.

When I registered for this year’s conference, I entered a new manuscript in the picture book contest and I signed up for a critique.

It was nice to meet up with members of my writing group, and meet some new friends.  I went to amazing sessions–even better than last year!

Then, on Saturday, they announced the contest winners and I got Honorable Mention!

2016-09-17 13.17.53 2016-09-17 14.03.12

I told my friends at the conference that I was using this conference to decide if I needed to just bury this picture book manuscript and move on, or if there was some life left in it.  I’d spent last fall submitting it, and I got some complimentary rejections, but it didn’t go any further than that.

I was so happy to get that recognition in the contest.  I was starting to feel a little bummed about writing picture books.  I love writing them, but maybe it isn’t for me.  The market is competitive, and perhaps I needed to spend my energy elsewhere.  This re-lit the fire!

On Sunday morning of the conference, I had my face-to-face critique of the same manuscript with an editor.  I was so nervous.  I’d had critique partners and writing groups, but never any industry feedback like this.

It was amazing.  Not because she told me the book was fabulous and flawless and she was going to publish it tomorrow (that’s what we all secretly daydream about), but that it wasn’t perfect, but had some elements that were strong.  She had criticism that I thought was spot on, and some ideas for how to improve the manuscript.  What most encouraged me was that she said I was good at humor, and I should keep going with being funny.  It’s every kid-sister extrovert’s dream to be told that.  She also liked a 4th wall breaking moment in the manuscript and told me to do it more throughout the story.

The editor also told me that she didn’t love my premise.  That may sound like it was a blow, but honestly, it was somewhat liberating.  When I allowed myself to consider changing the premise, I saw how I could fix the other problems that she pointed out.  It was exciting to consider the possibilities of keeping the character and dropping the premise.  At the end, the editor said she was so glad I was willing to consider a change like that.  It reminded me that flexibility is so key and not always common.  Being gracious and flexible are some excellent qualities in both writers and students.  I love it when I make a big suggestion like that to a student and she takes it in stride.  It’s only right that I model that behavior.

One of my query rejections for that manuscript said that I had “more to discover.”  I’ve spent a year wondering what that meant–until now!  Between my critique, and a workshop on character development with the same editor, I understood.  The cow was flat and undeveloped.

[Side note: Until you try to write a picture book, you’ll think it’s nuts that you spend as much time developing those characters as you might spend on a novel.  But really, you can and you should.  You only have 500 words, so you better know that character deep down and be ready to make them come alive in as few words as possible.  You don’t have 10,000 words to “find” the character.  They need to exist in every word on every page.  Mind blown, right?]

I went home after the conference bursting with ideas.  In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday morning with a non-fiction picture book idea that incorporated some humor.  Sunday afternoon after the conference, while my youngest napped, I worked on a rewrite of The Cow Steals the Show and a first draft of my new idea.

Here’s what I think I’m learning about myself.  I’ve got humor, I’ve got plot and premise.  My characters have voice, but it’s not enough.  I’m not sure yet if this applies to my novel, but I think it’s true for my picture books.

Teaching, Writing

Process insecurity

Today I was giving feedback to students on a creative writing assignment.  For the assignment, they had to find a photo depicting human migration in some way.  Most chose an image of Syrian refugees, or immigrants at the US/Mexico border.  Some chose more historical photos of Japanese mail-order brides, or a family member who was a holocaust survival and immigrant.  They could then write in their choice of genre about the photo, story, poem, stream of consciousness, etc.

I asked for a paragraph of reflection at the end of the assignment.  One student commented on how hard it was to get started because she got hung up on finding the perfect structure and the perfect idea.  Once she started going, though, she discovered some things she hadn’t even realized were there and ultimately she felt great about the final product.

I needed to read that.  I’m having some process insecurity of my own.

Let me explain.  I wrote my novel Improbable Girl with an idea for an opening scene and that was it.  I had no outline, no ideas for the ending.  I had some characters in mind, but they weren’t fully developed.  I just wrote.  And I jumped around in the plot and wrote whatever caught my fancy that day.

When I finished, I started talking to other writers and reading about writing.  I read about all kinds of plotters and planners and outliners.  And I’ll admit, I started to feel a bit insecure.  I’m sure it was imagined, but I got the sense that writers who planned first looked at my seat-of-my-pants process (also called “pantsing”) as the inferior method of writing.

And when I sat down to edit my novel, it was a hot mess plot-wise and character-wise.  I had to make some massive changes.  I started to think that maybe some time spent outlining before writing might help me to save time on the revisions.

As I approach my next project, I’ve been doing some planning.  I’ve been Snowflaking and outlining.  The first few steps seem to work for me and then I get this feeling of dread and despair.  I can’t figure out how it should end or what the next crisis will be and suddenly I feel hopeless.  The whole idea is garbage and it’s not going to lead anywhere.

Today, I’m reminding myself of who I am.  I am a leap-and-the-net-will-appear person.  I’m a rush-in-and-find-joy-in-problem-solving person.  I think my logical brain is not quite as smart as the part of my brain that runs loose when I’m just writing my way out of things.  (“I wrote my way out…“)

I will say there is one pre-writing or extra-writing activity I find value in: character interviews.  I’ve starting doing more and more Q and A type freewrites.  I’m not controlling where it goes, I’m just asking and probing.  I did one with Jane and Daniel in the Improbable Girl editing process where I just asked them, “What do you think you’re doing?”  What came out of that was really crucial.  It helped me clarify what was happening with each of them and where they needed to go as characters through the novel.

So enough planning.  For now.  Maybe a premise is enough.  Maybe a character with a little wounded spot in her heart is enough.  And yes, I’m going to have more work on the other end to figure out how to make it work.  I’m alright with that.  I’ve been there before and I know I can make it through.

Also, I read this article by Chuck Wendig (swearing makes me so happy) and I needed it.  I joked on Twitter that I was going to make it a daily meditation.  I might not be kidding.  I might read it every day.  Even though I’ve done this once–finished a book, that is–I’m feeling that same old insecurity in my abilities.  Enough.  No more.

To write!

Teaching, Writing

Wall o’ Rejection

I teach at an independent all-girls school that attracts the most hard working young women in the area–38 different zip codes as a matter of fact.  They are driven, ambitious, and they’ve often been known as the best students in the schools they came from.  They excel in academic areas, they make amazing art and music, they play sports with fiery dedication and they have big dreams for themselves.  Then they come to our classes and we ask even more of them.  We challenge them, we ask them to stretch themselves, we give them constructive criticism.  Because they are girls, and because they are high achieving, many are prone to perfectionism.  The challenges we present them sometimes overwhelm them and some start shying away from creative risk.

Our school has a really amazing confidence committee that researches and develops initiatives on campus to increase student confidence.  They’ve taught the faculty that one of the qualities that can limit confidence is a fear of failure.  Our students want to please us, their parents, while also meeting their own aspirations.  It can be daunting and one stumble can feel like the end of the world.  The pressure on students has been growing steadily and much of that pressure results in them avoiding failure at all cost.

So, when I started querying my novel this summer, I knew I was going to share my experiences.  Querying a picture book last year, and now a novel, has been such a learning experience.  It’s taught me so much resilience and I’ve learned to embrace failure.  I have always been willing to take risks, but even this was scary at first.  But I survived.  And I didn’t quit.  I want to show students that successful adults they respect experience failure.  We don’t succeed in spite of failure, it’s because of it.

I also want to even the score a bit.  Students have 6 or 7 classes each year and every day they get grades and criticism handed down to them.  Their faults and weaknesses get pointed out, often in red pen, on an hourly basis.  Adults have it so much easier.  So, to soften the blow of grades, I have decided to make a wall of rejection.  I’ve printed out my rejection letters (with names removed, of course!) and I’ve taped them up on the wall.  All around the rejections, I’ve put quotes celebrating rejection and failure and inspiring perseverance.  I’ve also invited seniors in to see my rejections as they wait for and receive their college decision letters.

I took some pictures on Friday to share.

Here’s to glorious failure!

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