Writers and other creatives can only make their art because they are hypersensitive to the world and the human condition. So it’s no surprise that a global crisis like the pandemic makes such a deep imprint on us, it can choke off our ability to create anything at all. And hearing people say, as they did this week, that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague lockdown doesn’t help.
I’m writing the first draft of a brand-new middle grade book and am one of the lucky ones. With the exception of a few panicky days where all I can do is watch the news and nurse my cracked knuckles and dream of rubbing my eye again one day, I’ve been able to keep writing. But two years ago exactly, I was at a total standstill, laid low by the flu and by frustration that my writing was going nowhere (it passed, thank God, and I began writing again after a few months).
What I told myself then is what I would tell any writer now: you don’t have to create. You don’t have to stress that other people seem to be creating and you’re the only one who isn’t.
A salve for the writer’s mind
Just trust that the sensitive, creative mind you were born with is taking it all in and maybe, one day, will do something with it. Or not. But it’s okay to crumble. If anxiety, or mortal terror, are pressing in, stop yourself looking at the news any more than twice a day. Treat yourself to anything you find to be a salve. Sketch a daffodil. Watch Patrick Stewart read sonnets. Get a step-by-step guide on how to do that mindfulness breathing thing from the Zen monks who mastered it.
If you’re up to it, try a creativity exercise like this one led by Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US, just to get the free-associations moving in your brain.
Don’t forget the flowers
None of us is Shakespeare. But this tulip is: it’s the very first tulip to flower in the garden, every year, and it raised its face to the sun this week. Wherever you are, this tulip is for you.
Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers and would-be Mars colonists. She co-founded the Scotland network of SCBWI and is author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME, publishing in 2020 with Scholastic US. She holds a 2019 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust.
My debut novel FRIEND ME doesn’t come out until November, but I have some sense of the particular heartbreak now hitting my fellow Roaring 20s Debuts who have recent and upcoming launch dates. For these writers, in-person publicity is now impossible, and the effect on school and library sales is still unknown.
Do you or young people you know have reading time on their hands, perhaps an abundance of reading time stretching from sunup to bedtime? Please consider giving some love to these debut authors whose lifelong dreams are coming up hard against the reality of a global pandemic.
I’ve personally read and loved How to Make Friends with the Sea, My Life As A Potato, To Fly Among the Stars and From the Desk of Zoe Washington. I’m in the middle of the wonderful What Stars Are Made Of, and I can’t wait for Efrén Divided and Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
But that’s just a sliver of what’s available! And WordPress won’t let me upload too many more thumbnails into this blog without going all skewy.
See a list of debuts here
All of these books and their fellow 2020 middle-grade debuts can be browsed here. I think they all sound amazing, and I’m thrilled to see there’s a wonderful selection of diverse and #ownvoices stories. These folks are finally changing the face of kidlit publishing. Go have a browse and, above all, enjoy!
These books are going to be worth your time. It’s unimaginably difficult for a manuscript to rise to the top in the competitive children’s literature market. These authors have beaten the odds by attracting a publisher’s attention and getting that elusive book deal.
You can help make that final bit of their dream come true by showing some booklove and sharing one of these stories with a young person.
There are times when the writing journey has hard, tangible milestones, and seeing the cover of my debut for the first time has been one of those this-is-really-happening moments.
What do you think of it? It instantly gave me the right feels, down in my gut. FRIEND ME is the story of an Irish girl who moves to America and is badly bullied in middle school, and how she gets past it — and then gets into even worse trouble — with the help of her new BFF.
I love the smashed phone, the way Roisin is indistinct in the reflection, and the no-escape way she’s tunneled towards the girls whose actions (and inactions) come to define Roisin’s daily ordeal of school.
FRIEND ME has undercurrents of tech swirling in and around it, not least the social media apps that Roisin finds it hard to look away from, and the clinical shininess of the lockers accentuates that vibe. Tremendous thanks to the artists whose talent made this cover: the art was created by Mike Heath and the design is by Elizabeth B. Parisi and Yaffa Jaskoll.
Here’s what the legendary Elizabeth Wein has said about the book: “Friend Me is a heart-racing escalation from toxic teen power play and the dangers of social media to a darkly searing near-future thriller. A stunning debut.” Elizabeth wrote the New York Times bestselling Code Name Verity amongst other fantastic works (see a review of her middle-grade prequel to CNV, The Pearl Thief, here).
If you’d like to get regular updates on FRIEND ME, as well as recommended kidlit great reads from other authors, podcasts on children’s publishing and upcoming events for children’s writers, you can sign up for my quarterly kidlit newsletter here.
How important are covers in the books you choose to read?
I’m still reeling from the best news I’ve had in my professional career: Scholastic in New York will publish my debut for middle grade readers, FRIEND ME, in autumn 2020. My agent Jennifer Laughran is to thank for this magnificent turn of events, as is my editor Emily Seife at Scholastic. Emily hasn’t just championed the project heartily through the acquisitions process, she’s also been the most profoundly sensitive and ingenious reader I’ve ever encountered, with inspired editorial suggestions that have pushed this story to be so much better. The deal announcement is here:
How can I express what it’s been like to go through this experience? I’d been writing on and off for children for more than a decade when, in 2014, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. That’s when I wrote the first draft of a middle grade adventure I really thought was going to be a winner: I honed it to what I felt was a bright shine, including writing 35 versions of my cover letter, pitching it at and winning The Hook, SCBWI’s national pitching competition in the UK, and signing with my agent, Jennifer. That manuscript and my next one got fantastic feedback, but neither of those projects was quite The One.
To be honest, life then took over. My health, mental and physical, headed south, and I found myself inside a deeper hole than I thought possible. I stopped writing.
It was months before I could face a keyboard again. Even when I did, I decided that what I wrote was just for therapy: I wouldn’t show it to anyone, I’d just focus on the catharsis of it. So I began, and never have I written from a place of such anguish. I wrote the first words when I was at 30,000 feet, in May 2018, flying home to see my mother and sister in Massachusetts. Miraculously, I looked up and realized a couple hours had passed. Mentally I’d been miles away from the cramped abnormality of the aircraft cabin, absorbed with the opening scene of the book – a scene that would later be rewritten, then rewritten again, then cut altogether. I remember how good it was to experience that sense of wellness again, a feeling that only writing can give me.
I grabbed onto that wellness and followed it, taking baby steps. I wrote slowly, more or less every day, averaging just 250 words a day, I realize, when I look back at my Pomodoro statistics.
I knew where I wanted the story to go, including the accident that would befall my main character’s bully. I also knew the unhealthy turn that I wanted her relationship with her best friend to take; but the rest I left open, writing scene after scene, following only the sincerest motivation of the main character. If it didn’t make sense for her to do a thing, it didn’t happen.
It was around then that I had breakfast in Edinburgh with a friend from Harvard, Maile Meloy, now a celebrated novelist and short story writer. We discussed her book (an excellent thriller for adults called DO NOT BECOME ALARMED) and what her characters did in it, and I told her I felt strange about pantsing rather than plotting my current story.
Maile gave me the confidence not to worry: “Just stand your characters up, make them want something, and don’t let them get it,” she said. Scene after scene, that exact strategy had been working for me, so I carried on. What I ended up with, by that October, was the mostly tightly-woven story I had ever written, with clear and strong motivations throughout.
Jump forward to May 2019, and a Google Hangouts message from my agent at 10pm (“I know it’s late there – I have just sent you some very exciting news”) made me shriek and brought my daughter to the top of the stairs. All I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Because there it was: I was going to be published. And all it required was that I write not just from the heart, but from the deepest, darkest abyss I’d ever experienced.
It was almost a year to the day since I had written those first words on the flight to Boston.
I may never know why the earlier manuscripts weren’t The One, but I sense that there is a chiming between who I am as a person and the subject matter of FRIEND ME that the other stories didn’t have. I don’t just mean my own experiences of bullying, but also my career as a technology journalist, which has steeped me in the kind of tech that surrounds (and overwhelms) my main character. Roisin’s life is as phone-dependent and social-media-fuelled as the vast majority of young people today; throw classic middle-school bullying into the mix, and it’s an explosive combination.
Writing and your wellness
Even if I had not struck it lucky with the publication deal, I know now, after what I wrote through and out of last year, that I would’ve kept writing no matter what. For me, there’s no salve like a well-written sentence, a sturdy paragraph, a pleasing scene. I find tremendous comfort in re-reading something solid that I’ve written. Its solidity helps me regain my own, when I’m wobbling.
If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, keep writing. If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life.
Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing. And a happier world starts with a happy you.
When you’re revising your writing, do you relish the chance to make it shine or agonize that all your polishing may be for nothing when you need to revise the next draft?
I’ve been doing structural edits on my work in progress, a middle grade thriller, and despite the fact that line edits will be next – the nitpicking examination of each sentence – I can’t stop myself from polishing the sentences even at this structural stage.
In February I had the chance to attend a week-long retreat at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre near Inverness, and I’ve rarely been so nervous before anything. The Monday-to-Saturday retreat is a big part of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards that I won in January, but I wasn’t at all sure how I’d fare, or whether I could cope with so much untrammeled writing time.
If you’ve ever felt there’s no point in applying for yet another writing competition or grant opportunity, because you simply never win, that was me last summer. Yet for Christmas 2018, I received an earth-shattering phone call that I’d been chosen for a £2,000 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, supported by Creative Scotland. I did feel that the ground had opened beneath my feet, because after trying for this award and failing five years running, I had been this close to not applying.