This past weekend, Book Passage‘s annual Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference was interrupted by a train wreck. But luckily by the end of the four days, I had pulled myself out of the mangled wreckage of twisted metal and burning compartments, dusted the ash from my sleeves, and put one shaky foot in front of the other, back on the path to where I want to be heading.
Everything started off full steam ahead on that first day of the conference: notebook tucked beneath my elbow, manuscript well loved by a roomful of seven-year olds in my back pocket, and visions of dollar signs dancing in my head. With a bellyful of coffee, I was ready to take the kid lit scene by storm.
Then the train jumped the track, folded like an accordion, and burst into flame, belching black smoke into the clear blue sky.
The story that I had brought to the conference hoping to sell had another thing in mind for me.
Sophia in Mouseland, my chapter book manuscript that my daughter’s first grade classroom loved, was labeled “quiet” (apparently industry code for not likely to sell) and my swept-under-the-rug doubts about the flatness of the characters further revealed themselves in an editor’s critique that the story lacked an overarching theme. The holes in the craft of my writing were dragged out into the sun: telling rather than showing, a weak opening, improper placement of dialogue tags, on and on.
My dreams of instant accolades and success were squelched. No six figure deal eagerly handed to me. No immediate penning of Return to Mouseland.
But luckily I have been training in the martial art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the past two years, and honestly there is nothing like BJJ to teach a person how to get crushed and then just climb back on your feet. Every class, despite learning more techniques, connecting dots, and improved conditioning, I get choked, I get my arm nearly twisted off, and I get smothered beneath a sweaty guy who outweighs me by at least 60 pounds. Every class, my ego gets stepped on and ground into the mat.
Yet I keep showing up. I’ve learned how to disregard the crushed ego to learn an art. I’ve learned how to push myself beyond my previous limits and accept daily defeat on the long term journey towards martial arts mastery.
However, I am less used to get my squirreled away writing crushed. Maybe not sharing my work has been a strategy to protect my ego, but it is also a sure fire way to never truly learn or master an art.
So, when I walked up to that coffee dispenser on the final day of the conference, I was a mess, still tangled up in the twisted metal, mind clouded with the black smoke of the train wreck. Maybe I was not meant to be a writer of children’s book, or a writer at all. Did I have the energy and will to go back into Sophia in Mouseland to make it a better work? Or should I just put aside my writing ambition as an excess of youth?
But on the last day of the conference with the bitter taste of coffee in my mouth, things began to change. Another writer told me how an agent was interested in seeing her middle reader story but that her picture book and young adult novel were not well received. And the piece that agent wanted to see had at one time been labeled as “quiet” and the opening too slow. The author had swallowed the criticism and then invested the time to improve her piece, enough so that progress was being made.
It was during that discussion that I saw that I was not Sophia in Mouseland, and I realized that several of the fantasy novels that I have been working through over the past several years had potential as young adult novels. So I decided that morning that rather than attending another session on the middle reader age group that I would sit on the young adult session.
And that session gave me the courage to pick myself up out of the train wreck and continue my journey.
The session was taught by Ying Compestine, an author of picture books, cookbooks, and young adult novels and food celebrity. Ying inspired me. Despite an obvious savvy about the business of selling and promoting books, Ying is a writer deeply concerned with her craft.
While it is perhaps not surprising that it took her seven years to write and publish Revolution is Not a Dinner Party (such stories of long times from writing to publishing are not unusual), what struck me was the work that she put into the story. For example, she condensed her first three paragraphs into a single sentence. She re-wrote several short stories when an editor made an off-hand comment that those stories were not as strong as others in her Hungry Ghost collection. Every word she labored over to make sure that it was perfect. For her, every published work is part of her reputation and she refuses to let a work go out before she considers it perfect.
What Ying brought to life for me was something that I knew deep down inside: story comes first – before queries, before sales, before fame, and, above all, before ego.
A day later that train wreck is a distant memory. In my hand, I hold tattered manuscript pages charred at the edges. I could let them drift off in the wind, soon to be forgotten by all but me, but I can’t. I’ve survived the train wreck (the first of many, I imagine), so I will hold onto these pieces of paper that perhaps might become great stories and keep walking, step by step, on the path of where I want to be heading.