My publication deal and other miracles

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.

Pantsing

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.

The Call

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.

Unlocking a tough scene with a clean-slate rewrite

Pen and Paper by GuudmorningLast week’s revisions were the hardest I’ve faced in a while on my work in progress, a middle grade novel that’s my first full-length fantasy. The scene where the very real world meets the magical just wasn’t working, but thanks to some great reading recommendations from twitter (I especially loved Anne Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS), plus some back-to-the-drawing-board scene brainstorming, I’ve got past my roadblock in chapter 7.

I don’t know how I’d forgotten this golden rule of revising: when I am struggling to rewrite a scene, I cannot bring over any old material from the previous draft, and by that I mean not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word. I absolutely need to reimagine everything about the characters’ mindset, assumptions and fears in order to generate realistic interactions, and the realistic dialogue that flows from that.

This meant doing some improv acting, devising a new scene (and, yes, talking to myself out loud in my writing room while I did it), exploring what the characters would say to each other on first meeting.

If I forget, please remind me in future – no! copying! and pasting! I have to start with a completely clean slate, especially when a scene is tricky.

If you’ve had any epiphanies during your writing or revising process, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

 

Paper and pen image by Guudmorning on Flickr

Review: Emma Shevah’s MG comedy Dara Palmer’s Major Drama

dara palmer major drama

I’m a sucker for theatrical kids, and it was obvious from the start that Dara Palmer, star of Emma Shevah’s DARA PALMER’S MAJOR DRAMA, wouldn’t disappoint. Eleven-year-old Dara is a born star; it’s just that no one around her has recognised this yet. Passed over repeatedly for starring roles in the school play, Dara ever-so-reluctantly joins the director’s after-school acting class at the local theatre and ever-so-gradually learns that she has a lot to learn about this acting thing…which is not, evidently, based around how many faces she can pull.

If you loved Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER books, you’ll love the Dara story, not least because there’s a heavy dose of heart-warming self-discovery as Dara’s eyes open to other things beyond what makes a good actor. Dara’s one of two adopted daughters in the Palmer family but she’s never wondered (until an acting exercise by her teacher spurs her to do so) what it feels like to be her shyer, younger sister Georgia, who’s habitually outshone by Dara and her megawatt personality.

Dara is one of the most deliciously comic characters I’ve read in a long time, with a non-stop voice that explodes with personality. Her wonderful character is what lets her ruminate genuinely but never in a heavy-handed way about the Cambodian parents she never knew, about what it must have been like for her baby self to be whisked away to live in England, and about the everyday racism of a few boorish classmates. Dara’s dawning awareness that there are no faces like hers on the Hollywood posters that line her walls also feels real, as does her all-guns-blazing determination to be one of those faces, one day.

As a transplanted American living in the UK, I especially adored the view on America; I’ve seen in my own kids and others in our Scottish village the way that the US (in entertainment terms, at least) is like a giant pop-culture monolith to the west, obsessing British kids in a way that’s not altogether a good thing. Dara is irritated that she finds herself misusing US terms like “prom” and “vanity cases” — this is deftly, brilliantly done and is some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in ages.

As a NetGalley reader I didn’t get to see most of Helen Crawford-White’s illustrations, but the sparkling cover has the right glam to draw star-loving readers.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah, illus. by Helen Crawford-White.

Published 2015 UK: coming July 2016 in US.

More info at Chicken House

Your story can make a great story

The Mirror

I shouldn’t be blogging when this is my only clear morning to work on novel revisions, but yesterday’s twitter pitch contest aimed at increasing the diversity in children’s literature has me thinking thoughts that are crowding out everything else.

#DVpit, the brainchild of New York literary agent Beth Phelan, took over twitter yesterday, encouraging writers with polished, ready manuscripts to put a one-liner about their work onto twitter if theirs is a diverse book — especially if the writer him- or herself is from a diverse background. Of course that’s open to interpretation, but here’s how Beth described DVpit.

So for example, if you are a writer of colour and your book centres around characters of colour, or if you are a writer with a disability and so is your main character, #DVpit wanted to hear from you yesterday.

By the way, if you missed yesterday’s contest and you’re writing a diverse story that’s ready to be seen by agents, you haven’t missed the boat. It’s clear from yesterday’s huge industry interest in #DVpit that agents and publishers are keen to hear from you whenever your story is at its best.

That’s why I wanted to jot down some thoughts today – to encourage you, whoever you are, not to be afraid to put your own culture – or elements of it – into the story you’re writing for children. I’m a Caucasian, first-generation Irish-American now living in Scotland, so I don’t pretend to have first-hand experience of living in our society – which still tends to prioritise and reward white, male, heterosexual, middle-class Judeo-Christian backgrounds – as a person from a minority or marginalised background.

But I do know what it’s like to assume, at a gut level, that my own story isn’t as interesting as something I could invent. The first two manuscripts I wrote were set on a space station, centred around a boy struggling with self-confidence issues. The problem with skilled writers is that they can write just about anything and make it sound good, and I was indeed able to write a competent story that had very little of my own guts, fears or fantasies in it.

It was only when I wrote a story that I decided was going to be 100% for me – with deep roots in my own Irish-American Massachusetts upbringing – that I tapped into something special. That third story was the one that got me my amazing agent, Jennifer Laughran, and while a huge amount of writers-craft work and practice was needed to pound the story into shape, I do believe the story works because it’s plugged right into my guts, into who I am.

Don’t discount your own heritage, background, insights, inherited legends or cultural traditions if you’re looking for the stuff of your own stories. I’m not giving the pat advice to write what you know; I’m saying don’t forget who you are when you’re looking for ideas that resonate.

The best advice I remember hearing on this topic is “write what you fear.” (Who said that? If you can remember, stick it in the comments below.) All the way through my Massachusetts book, I had the palpable sense of exploring things that really, really scared me.

And those are the books I adore reading: books like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina or Brian F. Walker’s BLACK BOY WHITE SCHOOL, or Lindsay Eagar’s HOUR OF THE BEES, or Julie T. Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, where the main character struggles to find peace with where they came from and where they want to go. Not all those stories, by the way, are own-voice tales by and about authors from the same tradition. But they are the stories I love most, because they pack an unbeatable punch.

A lot of people in the publishing industry would agree that books on shelves don’t reflect the true diversity of the great wide world, and #DVpit looks like it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging more writers to tell stories that spring from their own backgrounds. I’ve looked at Twitter contests for some years – that’s what set me on the road to finding my amazing agent – and I’ve never seen such a high calibre of industry folks watching the one-line pitches as I saw yesterday with #DVpit.

Whatever your story is, write it, make it awesome, hone your pitch until it shines so much it hurts your eyes, then submit. What have you got to lose?

 

 

 

Mirror photo by Pellesten on Flickr

Great middle grade reads: review of PAX by Sara Pennypacker

Although I write for middle grade I’m largely catching up on young adult reading at the moment, and amazing YA it is. That’s why I was extra thrilled to come across a middle grade book that really packed an emotional punch: PAX by Sara Pennypacker.

I haven’t read a dual voice narrative that works in quite a while, and Sara manages it elegantly, alternating between the fox’s world and “his boy,” Peter, whose father has pretty callously obliged Peter to abandon tpax_coverhe fox at the side of the road before the boy goes to live with his grandfather.

The fox’s outsider view of the human world is well done. As a writer it’s hard to choose which details of the “normal world” the outsider should fail to comprehend: I loved that the foxes don’t have a word for lying, or for tears. Sara has also laced in lovely realistic details of red fox behavior from her research into the animals, including details of how they show affection, and it all works beautifully.

PAX has picked up a reputation as a tearjerker — if you’re concerned that the story might be too much of a heartbreaker for a middle grade audience…well, there’s plenty of sadness in here, but nothing the 9 to 12 reader can’t cope with.

Artist Jon Klassen (I WANT MY HAT BACK) has done a superb emotional cover that captures the isolation of the book, and the book features an occasional black and white double page spread with his evocative, spare style, but I would’ve loved to see more of his work in this piece, the way Ongbico’s work was woven into THE WOLF WILDER, for example.

If you’d like to see more, there’s a video of my review above.

A gorgeous read and a brilliant animal story.

My top 2015 contemporary middle grade books

I’ve found that word of mouth is the most reliable way to find books for my kids and myself to read. This is my video roundup of the best contemporary, realistic middle-grade books (for reading age 9 to 12) that I read during 2015. Not all of them were published during this year, but they were new to me.

I’d love to know if I’ve missed any stars here. What were your top 2015 contemporary middle grade reads from this year? Let me know in the comments below, or if you like, you can follow me on Goodreads.

middlegrade2015contempv2