Back in 2013 or 2014, a writer friend suggested that I join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind, but it probably went something like this: That sounds so established. That’s for real writers, and I’m not sure that I’m enough.
I’m so glad that my friend brought SCBWI to my attention (Thanks, Sue!) and that I joined. As it turns out, members are writers and illustrators on every point of the publishing spectrum, from those who’ve published dozens of books to those who are unpublished. There’s a place for every writer who is passionate about writing and illustrating (and reading) children’s books. And yes, if you write or illustrate, then you are real and you are enough.
One of the things that I most love about SCBWI are the conferences which are skillfully organized by teams of children’s writers and illustrators. I’ve been attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Conference since 2014. Each one has been a different experience, depending on where I am in my writing life, who’s on faculty, and whom I happen to meet. But I always walk away with new knowledge, connections, and inspiration. Always.
Am I sounding like an ad for SCBWI? Really, I don’t enjoy being a saleswoman. I find self-promotion hard. I give away too many copies of my book. And I’m that mom who avoids fundraisers. If I’m enthusiastic about something, it’s only because I believe in it. (Like, I will spread the word when my daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies. Want any come January?)
Conferences are a good fit for me, because I enjoy learning and connecting with people in person. And who doesn’t love inspiration? Besides, I savor the get-away from life and a hotel room all to myself.
When I attended my first Mid-Atlantic Conference in 2014, I was so excited that I could barely sleep the night before. And when day came, I felt that I had met My People. People who understood the deep desire to create books for kids, were working hard to make that happen, and were helping each other along the winding road.
When I attended my fifth Mid-Atlantic Conference a couple of weekends ago, I felt all the more that I was with my people. People who understood what it feels like to have work rejected by editors and agents. People who keep going despite (and maybe even partly because of) the rejections. People who still have the deep desire, who are still working hard, who are still helping each other.
Why, this conference has become so much like a second home that… the morning of the conference, I grabbed my tote bag, stepped out into the hallway, and realized that… I still had my slippers on! Okay, maybe that was just absentmindedness at work, but in any case, this conference has become a writing home-base. I did change out of my slippers, by the way.
Over the course of two days, I met new people and hugged old friends. I filled up my notebook with so many craft ideas and inspirational words from writers, illustrators, editors, and agents who gave speeches, sat on panels, and taught workshops. I will, as I have in the past, turn back the pages to those notes.
The wise and wonderful Pat Cummings gave the keynote address and led a three-hour workshop. Her words, especially, have continued to resonate:
The bottom line is do it. If you love it, put it down on paper. You’re 90% there. Somebody else will love it, too.” – Pat Cummings
If you won the lottery today, would you still be doing it?” – Pat Cummings
How long are you going to be on the planet?” – Pat Cummings
This year’s conference felt extra special to me. Ever since, I’ve tried to put my finger on why. It was likely due to several factors including the very lovely faculty and my own comfort level. More than anything, though, I picked up on an particularly kind, gentle vibe. I wonder if others who attended felt it, too.
Given the divisive state of this country, I appreciated all the more the haven that this conference is. I took solace in connecting with others who believe in the power of books to build bridges between people. During a time when I’m grieving for our country (and our world), it was healing to be in the presence of a people who are trying to birth beautiful books for our greatest hope: children.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. I hope to see some of you there next October!
When I started this blog one-and-a-half years ago, I didn’t know what I’d write about or how often I’d post. I’ve taken things day by day, and as it’s turned out, I’ve posted once a month about something that has resonated with me that month (save for the planned interviews which have also resonated!). This has worked well for me.
Until now. As September has rolled along, I’ve wished that something would stand up and say, “Blog about ME!” But nothing has spoken. For sure, national news has been very loud and consuming, and I’ve had a hard time hearing much else. Maybe I haven’t been listening carefully enough, because I know there’s got to be inspiration, even there .
In general, though, I’ve not been without inspiration this month. I’ve had plenty for two writing projects (one historical fiction and the other narrative non-fiction) that I hope will ultimately add some positive energy to our world. I wish I could share more than that, but I can’t; that’s the way this business goes. If things pan out, I’ll be more than happy to blog about them down the road.
Maybe next month, blog worthy inspiration will strike. Or maybe, I’ll change my strategy and not wait for inspiration. Or yet again, maybe I’ll change what has become a once-a-month goal. I’ll be thinking on this.
In any case, I wanted to touch base before we turn the calendar to October. Wishing you a wonderful fall — filled with inspiration!
It was a quiet morning, the start of what was to be an unscheduled day for me. Ahhh.
In the previous two weeks, my family and I had flown back from our family reunion in California… I had finished up an accelerated summer education course… I had had a routine screening colonoscopy… I had taken my girls to various annual appointments, gatherings with friends, back-to-school shopping, and their school open houses to meet their new teachers.
All good. But busy. (OK, the colonoscopy prep was no fun. But the results were good, so I’ll take it!)
I was planning to head out that afternoon to indulge in some writing which had taken a backseat during the spring and summer to teaching recertification. I would hide out at the library or a café… and escape from life for a while.
The door bell rang. A friend of my daughter Liana had arrived to pick up Liana so that they could go for haircuts. (Suddenly, over the summer, several of Liana’s friends had attained their driver’s licenses. And they were willing and, dare I say, eager to chauffeur. Yay!).
I rushed to get dressed, greet her friend, and say, “Bye and have fun.” What happened next happened so quickly that I’m not sure exactly how it happened. All I can say definitively is that I ruptured a tendon in my left pinky.
As I was getting dressed. Yes, I hurt myself getting dressed. More specifically, as I was yanking up my jeans. I heard “SNAP” and… I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like.
Ouch. I know it sounds crazy, and almost two weeks later, I’m still shaking my head. And laughing about it. Kind of.
My husband, Rob, rushed me to the nearby urgent care center owned by one of the local hospital systems. The nurse joked with me that I must have been doing something heroic. Ha!
I had x-rays taken and my pinky was put in a temporary splint. Good news! The tendon hadn’t pulled off any bone.
But! I would need surgery. Bummer. I was given a referral to an orthopedic doctor with directions to call on Monday morning.
Saturday (continued) & Sunday
I iced and elevated. And continued on with life, disturbed that I could hurt myself getting dressed and sad whenever I peeked at my limp pinky in the splint. Every now and then, I fantasized that it would bounce back to life and not require surgery.
All the while, though, I felt grateful that it wasn’t worse, that I had family at home to help me, and that we have good health insurance (while feeling very acutely that everyone deserves good health insurance).
I contacted a friend who had had a hand injury last year, inquiring where she had been referred to and cared for. She raved about the UVA Hand Center (where I had not been referred to) saying that her child had also received excellent care there. Having great trust in my friend’s judgment, I decided to make the call there, first thing on Monday morning.
The kind person who took my call got me onto the schedule that very day. Indeed, I received excellent care. And then I heard these words: “I don’t think you’re going to need surgery for this.”
“We see this type of injury all the time. It usually heals on its own. We’ll get you into a custom-made splint and show you how to dress it.”
I’d come in fully expecting to schedule surgery. Instead I felt like I’d won the lottery.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll need surgery in the end. But I’m going with this until we know more. And I’ll be keeping my fingers, umm, crossed.
I’m under doctor’s orders to air out my pinky for 15-30 minutes every day. Since I have to support it with my other hand, I can’t be my usual self during that time, i.e. either buzzing around doing stuff or sitting still reading and writing. So I’m doing something I’ve barely made time for since my kids were born: watching TV. Rob got a big flat-screen TV ten years ago and I barely know how to work the thing.
So, there we are, Rob and I, watching a half-hour of TV together each evening. Often it turns into an hour. I’ve laughed a lot. And I wonder why I hadn’t joined him in front of the TV sooner. I like to think it’s just what the doctor ordered.
While I grew more skilled at washing the dishes and my hair with one hand covered in a plastic bag, my girls started their new school year learning algebra and trigonometry. They came home with stories to tell and I felt grateful to be a recipient.
After dinner Liana pulled the ice cream tub from the freezer. “Uh, this is really soft.” She took a close look into the freezer. “Everything is soft and melting.”
Oh no. This fridge was 14 or 15 years old. It had been a tad too tall to fit underneath the cabinets, and the delivery guy (with our OK) sawed off the bottom part of the cabinet frame so that it would fit.
About 10 years, the crushed ice function had stopped working. More recently, the filtered water had stopped working. And it had started making strange sounds.
We had just needed to replace the entire heat pump a few months before. The stove, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer were all older than the fridge. Don’t go, fridge! Not yet!
I left the kitchen table and crept toward the fridge, not wanting to face reality. On the way, I peered into the ice cream tub, and the ice cream resembled soft-serve. I reached into the freezer, touched the chicken, and it sprang back. Water was dripping from the ice container, dribbling down the walls of the freezer and onto the kitchen floor.
And yet for the second time since Saturday, I hoped against hope. Maybe it wasn’t really completely broken. Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with another bill, another inconvenience, another thing to do.
Rob had had to work late. Fifteen minutes later he came home and was convinced that we had to deal with it. Well, all right, if we must…
I remembered that our neighbors had a deep freezer in their garage. I called them. Even better! They had replaced their fridge recently and moved their old one into the garage. It was working and nearly empty! They welcomed us to use it.
We packed up everything except for essentials for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Rob and Liana brought over the food to our kind neighbors. Then Rob went out to get Ready Ice for the freezer where we then stored the essentials.
Leaving four dishtowels on the floor in front of the fridge to sop up the dribbling water, I spent the better part of Thursday shopping for a fridge that would fit our smaller space. At Lowe’s there was one more in stock! On sale! To be delivered on Sunday! Score!
We knew we would survive with our food just down the cul-de-sac road. And we marveled at how people in our world live without a fridge and other privileges that many of us take for granted.
On Friday morning, Liana raced up the stairs to my bedroom. “Mom! Everything is frozen! My lunch is frozen!”
I ran down to the kitchen and threw open the freezer door (careful to protect my pinky, of course). It was working! I threw open the fridge door. Working, too!
No more water dribbling out of the freezer.
Maybe a mechanical part had gotten clogged with ice, shutting down the machine until the water had drained? I really had/have no idea. There’s a reason I stick to books.
I voiced the possibility of canceling the new fridge, but the other three people in my house vetoed that right away. Yeah, it had become too flaky. Sometimes it’s best to let things go. And we were lucky that we could afford to let this one go.
Later that day I was headed home at the start of rush hour. First, I planned to make quick stops at the library and supermarket. The cars were going the usual 60 mph on this stretch of a two-lane highway. I was traveling in the right lane, preparing to exit soon, when I noticed that a line of stopped cars had suddenly started to form. Maybe an accident? Or an overflow of exiting cars?
The-car-in-front-of-me stopped. I stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror. The-car-behind-me stopped.
But the-car-two-cars-behind-me DID! NOT! STOP!
It was coming. I would be rear-ended.
I heard it: “CRASH!”
But wait. Where was the second “CRASH!”? You know, my car? My car hadn’t budged from the impending impact of the-car-behind-me. Why hadn’t my car been jolted?
And then I saw the-car-behind-me fly to my left-hand side and stop beyond me in my lane.
And then I saw the-car-two-cars-behind-me fly between our two cars and continue beyond the-car-behind-me.
I pulled over to the break-down lane and looked around, trying to process what had just happened during the last few seconds.
The-car-behind-me was smashed in the rear and in the front. The-car-in-front-of-me had sustained less damage, but still, it had been hit and was further up in the right lane than the-car-behind-me. The-car-two-cars-behind-me was behind the-car-in-front-of-me, but in the break-down lane.
So, the-car-two-cars-behind-me had hit the-car-behind-me AND the-car-in-front-of-me.
And my car was untouched. Untouched.
I took a photo (which I’m not posting to protect the privacy of the other drivers), then got out of my car.
The road was littered with car debris. The traffic behind us had halted. Including the semi who was the first vehicle in the left lane. Oh, what a scary thought I had when I saw that truck…
Everyone said they were OK. Thank Goodness.
A police officer came quickly. Traffic started to move in the left lane.
Each driver talked to the police officer. I was free to go and got into my car. The police officer waved me forward, my car tires crunching pieces of the other cars that were all much newer and nicer than my 17-year-old car.
As I drove, I replayed the scene in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this accident that happened all around me but had left my car (and most importantly, my body) unharmed.
I hadn’t seen it all unfold. As with my pinky, it happened so quickly. But given the aftermath and after several mental replays, I think this is what transpired:
After the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me in the rear, the-car-behind-me steered into the left lane, presumably to avoid hitting my car, and then steered back into the right lane. The-car-two-cars-behind-me steered between the-car-behind-me and my car, presumably to avoid hitting either one of our cars. However, because it was traveling so fast, the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me again, this time in the front; and then went on to hit the-car-in-front-of-me.
I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to go on with my day. If my pinky had been like winning the lottery, this was like winning countless lotteries.
I made it to the library ten minutes before closing to drop off some books and take some books off of hold. I picked up a few groceries for dinner at the supermarket and headed home.
Rob met me at the door. I said, “I was almost in a bad car accident.” That, of course, made no sense.
So he said, “What?” And I explained, feeling ever so grateful. And wishing the very best for the drivers and passengers of those three cars.
The weekend had been uneventful, thankfully.
And then the highlight arrived on Sunday afternoon: the new fridge.
It fit! It worked!
For the past six days, we’ve been enjoying crushed ice and filtered water.
We love our new fridge. Well, everyone except for the cats who are wary of it. Maybe it looks like a gigantic animal. It certainly looks and sounds different. And probably smells different, too.
But unlike the pinky that needed surgery, the fridge that had drawn its final breath, and the car accident that was bound to happen, this new fridge is indeed what is seems to be.
What did I take away from that week?
A LOT. I won’t mention every teeny tiny thing, but here are Amy’s Top Three (oldies but goodies):
Be mindful; stay in the moment. I’m trying to use my pinky as a wake-up call. When I’m getting dressed, let that be what I’m focusing on instead of thinking about a zillion other things that may distract me… Or maybe I’ll just stay in my pajamas the next time the doorbell rings.
Be kind. I interacted with a number of people, mostly strangers, as I dealt with these three situations. I was met with way more kindness than not, and every bit of it mattered. I would go into things more, but this is already a super long post! Thanks for making it this far.
Be hopeful. Like the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There is always hope.
Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! Whether you’re traveling far or staying close to home, safe travels to you and yours. And everyone.
If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)
The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!
Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.
Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk
Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan
How It Formed
In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.
What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan
How It Functions
Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.
What They Love About Their Critique Group
AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.
JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.
MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.
PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.
How They Have Grown as Writers
AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.
JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!
MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.
PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.
Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.
Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.
Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.
I’ve gotten into the habit of waiting until the end of each month to write a blog post. Sure, life gets busy. But I suppose I’ve been waiting to see what rises to the top. Either: What has resonated most clearly? Or: What has been the theme? The answers haven’t necessarily been one and the same.
What?! I’ve been enraged and heartbroken. They are all our kids.
I’ve been trying to do my small part. And I’ve been growing weary. Looking at my social media and news accounts, I know I’m not alone in this deep concern and preoccupation. To many of us, this country seems increasingly more surreal. Yet, things are all too real.
This brings me back to: What has resonated most clearly?
A few weeks ago, I caught a lovely breather. I attended a potluck at the home of Crissy Hawthorne, Director of the Music Education Center where my daughters have been privileged to attend. My younger daughter and her classmates had completed a 6-year program, and families came together one beautiful evening to celebrate.
It’s a different world now, because the old “don’t talk about religion or politics” adage went right out the window. Three other moms and I started off with small talk which quickly morphed into politics. I had known the political leanings of two of the moms but not the third, someone I’d only said a passing hello to before. There, in that idyllic spot where I took the above photo, we shared national news, commiserated, and encouraged each other to keep fighting the good fight.
It was the third mom who said something that has remained with me. Of all the things that I’ve heard and read and seen and done in June, this has resonated the most clearly:
None of us can always run with the baton. Pass it, take a break, recharge, and grab it again.”
Yes. That’s it! When I heard this analogy, something released within me.
I want to show up all of the time. But I can’t. No one can. It’s not sustainable.
We all need to breathe, so that we may keep going… so that we may grab the baton and give someone else a break. We’ve got a long way to go, but together — by taking turns — we can get there.
So I think June’s theme has been more like: politics, teamwork, and self-care.
While I find myself growing weary, I also find myself comforted, strengthened, and inspired by the team of Americans who are fighting for what’s right. This country is worth fighting for. Our kids – ALL kids – are worth fighting for.
If you’re on this team (regardless of party affiliation), keep fighting the good fight in whatever ways work for you. And keep breathing along the way.
When I was child, I assumed that I’d have life all figured out by now. I’d be set and coast into retirement. Life would be simple at this point, because I’d no longer be searching and striving. I’d have my family and home and career. The End.
Well, in some ways, life is simpler than it was at earlier stages. But in other ways, it’s more complicated.
First, I now know that each of those “things” – family, home, career — requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain and grow. Yep, they don’t just happen on their own.
Second, each calls for a different hat. A different set of skills and responsibilities.
Third, those hats change in shape as needs and demands change.
I can’t think of a month in my life when I’ve felt more acutely the wearing – and juggling — of multiple hats. And by “hat,” I don’t mean going through the motions. Quite the opposite, I mean investing my heart.
In May, I’ve been:
a student of writing.
a student of education.
I’ve worn additional hats, but I’ll stop there.
Each hat has sub-hats. OK, I’m taking this metaphor way too far, but you know what I mean, right? Being a parent isn’t just about watching your kids’ performances. Being a writer isn’t just about sitting at a computer.
On the one hand, all of these hats are wonderful. Each is a teacher — no matter the role, I consider myself a student, still learning. Every day. It’s a privilege, really.
On the other hand, managing all of these hats can be overwhelming, so I’ve gone back repeatedly to these three mantras:
1) I can’t do it all (at least not all at once). I have to let some stuff go. Hence, this symbolizes what my house looks like. Inside and out.
And this is what dinner sometimes looks like. More and more.
2) I can’t do it alone. When I went on the writer’s retreat, my husband was occupied a good part of the time with graduation weekend at UVA where he teaches. So two friends graciously helped by transporting our girls to places.
3) I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s good enough.
I see it on social media… and I hear it from friends and family in real time… and I just feel it in our country: we are all so busy.
You may wear more or less hats; you may have more or less support. Whatever your case:
Now, I’m off to take a walk in my neighborhood. I hope you’ll take a breather, too!
Sue O’Connor and I met on the first day of our first teaching jobs, way back in 1994. Since that day, we’ve supported each other through teaching, motherhood, and writing. Sue stayed in the Boston area while I moved to Brooklyn and then to Charlottesville.
Several years ago I read one particularly colorful email from Sue and thought, “This woman could write a book.” I emailed that thought to her, and guess what? She ran with it. She started writing novels and hasn’t stopped.
It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.”
Amy: Thanks for stopping by, Sue. You heard about my plans to blog before I’d taken any concrete steps. And now you’re here!
Sue: My pleasure. It’s always fun talking about my favorite things, books, with one of my most favorite people.
Amy: You’ve worked hard on your craft for years, and now you have big news to share. Do tell!
Sue: I do, and I’m very excited. Ann Rose from Prospect Literary Agency is now my literary agent, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Ann and I met a few years ago via an online novel writing workshop where we partnered up to critique each other’s work-in-progress. I loved Ann’s writing style from the beginning and she gave amazing feedback. After a while we decide to expand our online critique group and scouted out some fabulous talent from all over the country to join us.
During this time, Ann had interned at a different literary agency and fallen in love with the business side. After two of her own books were sold, she decided to become a full-time agent while continuing to write on the side. I was honored that she asked me to be her first client.
Amy: That’s an amazing turn of events, and I couldn’t be happier for you! How does it feel to be represented by your former critique partner?
Sue: It’s been so positive. I know Ann’s work ethic and she knows mine, and there’s no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. There’s a level of trust there that has built up over the years and a sense of camaraderie that I cherish. We’ve supported each other through the ups and downs of the writing process and shared so much of what we learned about writing with each other.
Ann is good at pushing me to delve deeper into character motivations, feelings, and character arch. If it were up to me, I’d compose my book entirely of dialogue. She challenges me to expand on my descriptions, characters’ physical reactions, and to set the scene for the reader.
Plus, I already know Ann’s weakness—salty, crunchy chips with a side of dark chocolate.
Amy: It seems like you two can hit the ground running. You’ve been working on multiple projects over the years. Which novel will Ann be submitting to editors first? What’s it about?
Sue: The first one is Trebled Times of CeCe Sims. It’s a YA realistic fiction novel that follows a sixteen-year-old aspiring singer, CeCe, as she encounters an eccentric performer who reveals a devastating family secret. CeCe wrestles with the enormity of this new information, wondering if her whole life has been built on lies.
Faced with betrayal, CeCe enlists the help of her best friend and crush to orchestrate an out-of-state journey to find answers, piece together the puzzle of her past, and confront her fears. All the while she grapples with body image issues (many of which I’ve experienced myself), the intensity of first love, the power of friendship, and the importance of cultivating your passion.
Amy: It sounds like a page-turner. What inspired you to write Trebled Times of CeCe Sims?
Sue: It’s really a culmination and mishmash of all the stories I’ve heard over the years as a middle and high school teacher. Kids are so willing to share their struggles, their triumphs, and their fears if you listen and open your heart to them. I’ve worked in all kinds of districts and it’s the same everywhere. The thread that unites each tween/teen is a desire to be seen, to be of worth, and to have hope for the future.
Amy: Agreed. Do your students know that you write? If so, what kinds of reactions have you received?
Sue: When I worked in the school district that the book is based on, my principal knew and was so supportive that he agreed to let a portion of the students beta-read my work to be sure it was authentic to their neighborhood experience. The kids were excited that someone sought their input so their community would be portrayed in a credible way.
Amy: That’s awesome that your students served as authenticity readers. Music is a big part in the life of your teen protagonist CeCe. What part has music played in your own life?
Sue: Music can never mean to me what it did in high school when soundtracks punctuated every milestone. The Smiths, The Rolling Stones, U2, and The Cranberries were the backdrop to every significant event of my youth. Their music allowed me to express the intensity of my teen emotions and cultivated feelings of identity and cohesion among my friends. Music was our voice — to console, to affirm, to protest — when we couldn’t find our own words.
This is the experience I need CeCe to have with music in the book. She needs that outlet because she hasn’t yet learned to speak her own truth without it.
Amy: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?
Sue: That is such a loaded question because there are still days I don’t consider myself a “real” writer, even after having finished several manuscripts and securing representation. Then there are other days when I say to myself, “You’ve written today. You’re a writer.” On those days I feel pretty darn good.
Amy: I get that. What occupies your time when you’re not writing or teaching?
Sue: The most important times in my life are spent with my husband, Brian, and our twelve-year-old son Liam. We have a blast playing old-school board game like Clue, Monopoly, and Risk. Inevitably, Liam always leaves our games of Texas Holdem a little richer. And there are certain television shows that are a must watch. Currently we’re on a Hawaii Five O kick.
If the boys are otherwise occupied, I relax in my little sunroom with a cup of steaming hibiscus tea, snuggling with our Morkie, Emmi, and our attack-cat Shamrock.
Amy: How do you manage to write given your full plate?
Sue: Like anything else, if you’re passionate enough about something and dedicate yourself fully, you find the time — whether it’s getting up early, writing on your lunch break, missing social engagements, or using vacations to write. If you’re called to do it, you do it.
In all honesty, there are phases when I don’t do any writing. I allow myself time to relax, observe, and read for fun so I can fill up my well in order to be a more creative and balanced writer.
Amy: What are some of your favorite books?
Sue: My standbys are always the works of Walter Dean Myers, Margarita Engle, and Katherine Paterson. And the books I wish I’d written myself are Emily Murdock’s If You Find Me and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.
Amy: Other than reading and hanging out with your family, what’s your idea of fun?
Sue: Besides copious amounts of sleep? Taking a good yoga or meditation class is high on the list, and I’d love to travel more. Being in new places really heightens the power of observation. I think that’s why I like to spend time in different hotel lobbies in and around Boston where I people watch, eavesdrop, and write. And walking has always been a stress reliever. Taking Emmi out for a stroll sets things right with the world, if only temporarily.
Amy: If you could travel to any place, where would you go?
Sue: Since I was a child I’ve been wanting to visit Hawaii. I had a Hawaiian-themed coloring book that depicted beaches teeming with sea creatures, intricate flowers, exotic birds, and massive volcanoes. (Maybe that coloring book is why I’m obsessed with Hawaii Five O.) Since then I’ve been interested in Hawaiian culture but have yet to go. It’s on my bucket list!
Amy: I think I’ll be seeing some Facebook photos of you in Hawaii one day. Anything else you’d like to add?
Sue: Just that it takes a tribe to free up enough of yourself to accomplish any creative endeavor, not just spouses that pick up the slack around the house or friends that cart around your kid for you. It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.
Amy: Truth. Congratulations on moving forward with Ann by your side. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish together. Thanks again for stopping by!
Sue: Thank you so much for allowing me to share the news on your blog. And I need to ask that you carefully choose what you do next, because I will probably follow you. First, you were a Reading Teacher, so I switched from Speech and Language to become a Reading Teacher. Then, you became a writer and I pursued writing. Next, why don’t you become a taster-tested for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I could get on board with that!
Amy: I’ll get back to you on that. My favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor is Chocolate Therapy. What’s yours?
Sue: My favorite flavor is any one that’s in front of me!
If it had taken the inimitable Kate DiCamillo 473 tries, oh my oh my, how many would it take me?
I started sending out manuscripts to agents and editors almost one year ago. For the previous few years, I’d been building my writing life to get to the point of submitting. Hitting “Send” was another leap, and the ultimate one.
I can now say, “Fourteen rejections down.” Hopefully, not 459 to go.
But who knows? Maybe less. Maybe more. Only time will tell.
To write, your heart has to be absolutely tender, and you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.”
I have the tender heart. I’m growing a thicker skin.
The first few rejections were a tough reality to face. Since then, each rejection has been disappointing, no doubt. But I’m at a point where I see rejection as par for the course. I try my best with each submission and then send it off, hoping for an acceptance but knowing that a rejection will most likely appear in my inbox. It’s a fine line to walk.
Some rejections have come in the form of silence. The reality is that agents and editors are overloaded with queries and other responsibilities, and they simply can’t respond to every query. I do understand.
Some rejections have come in the form of a standard email. I’ve appreciated this sense of closure. Here are a few lines from some of those:
“It’s not quite right for my list.”
“I don’t think this one is quite right for me right now.”
“I don’t think I’m the right agent for this particular project.”
Some rejections have come in the form of a more personalized email. These are the ones that have encouraged me to press on. Here are a few lines from some of those:
“You are a wonderful writer with a delightful sense of humor.”
“It’s beautiful and bold.”
“I REALLY enjoyed your manuscript.”
Not all rejections are equal. There are many factors that need to be in place for an editor to acquire a manuscript or an agent to represent a writer. It’s kind of magical when it happens.
Maybe some of the agents and editors I’ve queried don’t think I have what it takes as a writer. I really don’t know. Whatever the case, I’m not taking rejection as a statement about me as a writer. I’m taking it as a statement about that particular manuscript: that it wasn’t the best fit for them for some reason(s).
I’ve come to see my role as one of matchmaker: given the information I have about an agent’s or editor’s preferences, do I have a manuscript on my laptop that might resonate with her? Even if a manuscript does end up resonating, there may be reasons that she chooses not to or can’t acquire/represent it.
The more I send out there, as thoughtfully as I can, the better my chances of making a match. At the time of this post, I have six manuscripts out on submission. Another one is going out on Monday. I have a manuscript that I’m revising. And many more that I’m planning to revise. (Don’t even get me started on new stories that I want to write!)
I don’t exactly feel like throwing a party when I receive a rejection (okay, maybe a little pity party). But to me, a rejection means that I’ve tried hard. And I feel good about that part. So, what do I do? I take a long look at the manuscript, revise as needed, and send it back out.
I may need to try many, Many, MANY more times. In fact, I know I will. Rejection is a fact of life for a writer, even those who have multiple books published.
Waiting is another fact of life. Submission guidelines have stated anywhere between four weeks to six months for a response or an assumption of rejection. What do I do in the meantime? Write. Revise. Repeat.
So, Kate DiCamillo’s 473 tries. That’s a very rocky road, for sure. But it’s also an incredible story about hard work, persistence, and patience. And hope. I, for one, am very glad that she kept going.
Thanks for hopping onto my road for a bit. And if you’re following your dream (whatever it may be), I wish you the very best of luck! I’ll see you along the way.
During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.
I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.
But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.
I felt that I was starting all over again.
Or really, just starting.
In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!
For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.
I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.
It was a blissful existence.
Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.
Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.
I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.
I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.
That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.
That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.
Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.
Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.
When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”
There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.
And guess what? I’ve been doing it…
I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.
I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.
I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)
I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.
I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?
Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).
All of it has made me grow.
I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.
So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.
Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.
While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.
Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.
Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.
But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.
So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.
Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.
If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.
It’s not good story-telling, I know, to give away the ending at the beginning. But I don’t like stressing people out with this sort of thing, so I’ll cut to the chase. I recently had a biopsy done, and it came back negative. Yay!
I’ll also leave out most of the story, the part that led up to the biopsy — what?! — because what I want to share is what I got out of the experience. There is a short story in that, though.
See these branches?
They’re on a tall pine tree outside of my bathroom window. When I called my doctor’s office for the results, I retreated to my master-bedroom bathroom. This way, I’d be out of earshot from my kids who were home on a snow day (which yielded no snow, so the branches looked just like this).
I waited for the office staff to put my call through to the nurse. It took a long time before the nurse picked up. Well, maybe a minute or two, but it felt like a long time.
There wasn’t much to do in the bathroom, so I gazed out of the window at those branches on a beautiful, blue-sky day.
On the one hand, the branches looked vulnerable – sitting way up high, extending far from the trunk, bobbing in the breeze.
On the other hand, they’d weathered many storms over the years. Whipped around by high winds. Pelted by heavy rain. Weighed down by snow and ice.
Those branches had been really good at bending and not breaking. I’d been watching them for sixteen and a half years. A few had broken from extreme stress, but for the most part, they’d remained resilient.
So, as I waited for the nurse, I anchored myself by watching those strong, flexible branches. And I thought about how the nurse on the other end of the phone would give me news, likely either: “It’s negative,” or “The doctor will call you” (which I’ve come to understand often means bad news).
And I thought about how the news, depending on what it was, would take my life in one direction or another.
Would I proceed with my plans for the rest of this school year? Or would a good deal of my time and energy need to go elsewhere?
Whatever the news, I hoped to handle things as those branches do. In that moment, I don’t think I could have laid eyes on a better role model. They keep it simple. They do what they need to do. And they do so with grace.
They seemed to be saying, quietly, “You got this. Whatever it may be.”
As it turns out, I was lucky. Before this, I’d been lucky — and unlucky — in other life situations.
Haven’t we all been in both of those places? Lucky? Unlucky? Be it health or something else? Something little or something big? It’s just part of the human experience.
This makes me think of another very short story. When my younger daughter was three years old, she had an accident while under my care. She required stitches, as had my older daughter a few years prior. I felt awful. Both of them. Under my care! Maybe I could have prevented it, if only I had…
My brother, Pete, who happens to be a family practitioner, told me over the phone, “You’ve probably helped her avoid other accidents. You just don’t know it.”
That was such an eye opener, and I felt so much better. What a compassionate response. And what a novel way of looking at motherhood and at life. I also took it to mean: Luck is all around, even when we don’t know it.
I’m aware of how fleeting and fragile life is. It’s a heavy awareness to live with, yet it’s part of what feeds my gratitude. That awareness makes me feel grateful to wake up each day.
That awareness also makes me avoid drama (which is different from conflict). I have no time and energy for the former. I’d rather be doing something meaningful or having fun. Or eating chocolate.
Those moments, like my phone call with the nurse, feel like reminders from the universe to sharpen that awareness and gratitude and perspective when it may be dulling.
As I’ve moved forward from that phone call, I’ve held on to the image of those branches swaying gracefully. They don’t know what will come their way; they just keep bending.
Those branches remind me to keep bending. They remind me that I’m lucky (even when I don’t know it).