25 Years of Scribbling – My Journey So Far

Twenty-five years ago, September 7, 1992, my youngest kid went to first grade. While I was a little sad to see her get on the bus, I was excited that she would be out of the house all day, like her older sister. I’d been working as a freelance journalist for years, mostly working nights for newspapers and whatever magazine or trade journal that didn’t write rubber checks. Suddenly I had a few more kidless hours a day.

The dream I had been harboring for years demanded that I pay attention.

I wrote an oath in my journal: I would focus on writing for children in the hours before the kids woke up and when they were at school. I gave myself five years, until September 1997, to get a children’s book published. If I couldn’t make the goal, I swore I would go to nursing school, which my mom had been bugging me about since forever.

I should have given myself 10 years.

I had no idea what I was setting out to do. I didn’t know how tough it was to get published. I didn’t even know how to get published. And I certainly did not know how to write. But I knew that I wanted to try.

If you’ve ever heard me present at a conference, you’ve heard about my years of failure. The fact that I honestly thought I was supposed to send in a first draft instead of revising. That I wrote the world’s worst 7000-word picture book manuscript. I made every mistake possible and invented a couple of new ones just for fun. Rejections piled up for years.

The point is not that I screwed up. Everyone does that. The point is not that I almost quit many, many times. The point is that I kept trying. I had an audacious dream – to write books that kids might like – and it (mostly) made me happy to pursue that dream. So that’s what I did.

And a funny thing happened. I learned.

I attended SCBWI conferences and found a critique group. I started analyzing what worked and didn’t work in books. I found that revision was even more fun than writing first drafts.

I got better. I worked harder. I dreamed bigger.

I had huge plans for today. I was going to write poetry at dawn, write a letter than I could open on September 7, 2042. Thought about sipping champagne.

Instead, I worked. I’ll be on the road for most of the next 8 months, so today was a Dealing With Travel Email day. I walked to my local indie and picked up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I treated myself to Tandoori chicken and saag paneer, with blueberries for dessert.  I made a cup of chamomile tea, instead of opening champagne.

My first book (a picture book now long out of print) was published in 1996, one year before my deadline. Since then I’ve published 35 books that have collectively sold millions of copies. More importantly, I’ve been blessed with the chance to meet readers, their families, and their teachers and librarians across America and around the world. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, become friends with my heroes, and had the chance to give voice to the causes that I care about.

I am a very lucky and grateful girl.

I decided that the best way to celebrate the last 25 years was to do the work that got me here – some creative writing, some book tour preparation, too many email, and a nice walk to the bookstore.

Tomorrow morning I shall write a paragraph or two in my journal with a couple of goals for the next twenty-five years.

Who knows what adventures they’ll bring?

 

The UK Responds to WINTERGIRLS

I was talking to some friends last weekend about how much pain reviews can cause. Even the good ones can hurt because writers are mostly neurotic and we will find the phrase or the one word that is less than complimentary and then we obsess about that word until we’ve driven ourselves into a right, old funk.

And then I received word about my latest review from England.

I will never whine about a review again. Ever. Because after this one? I’m never going to read another review. I’m just going to reread these incredible words that Melvin Burgess, one the most significant YA authors in UK, wrote about my book. I might set them to music. Or turn them into an epic saga-length, ego-soothing poem.

It does not get any better than this. (Review originally published in the The Observer, Sunday 30 January 2011. )

“There is a great deal of dross written in teenage fiction, nearly all of which seems to end up on my desk. But from time to time, you come across a book that reminds you just why this is such an exciting – and exacting – field.

Wintergirls has many of the obsessions of current teen fiction, including the use of repetition and formatting to convey the state of mind of Lia, the protagonist, and the incredibly intense interior dialogue – so private, so shut off from the outside world, and which makes this particular novel so startling and memorable.

The plot is familiar enough. Our heroine, Lia, already ill, is sent on a vicious downward spiral into anorexia and self-harm by the news that her ex-best friend, Cassie, has died alone in a motel room. The desperation and self-hatred this triggers are set against Lia’s cleverness at hiding it from her separated parents, busy mum (Dr Marrigan), selfish father (Professor Overbrook) and well-meaning but unimaginative stepmother, Jennifer.

Meanwhile, the vengeful ghost of Cassie comes to haunt Lia and does her utmost to convince Lia to follow her all the way to self-destruction.

Lia’s fragile efforts to find a way out of her nightmare seem doomed to failure, but there is hope. There is love – complicated, but genuine, from both parents and stepmother, while her relationship with her little stepsister, Emma, is simple and guileless.

The novel sets a terrific dramatic pace. As soon as we realise that Cassie phoned Lia 33 times the night she died, and that Lia failed to pick up, the danger Lia faces is plain. But it is the raw stylistic power that makes this so memorable. Those clever word games are used to powerful effect, from the endless repetitions of Lia’s self-hating mantras to the crossed-out words that give the lie to her own thoughts.

The true nature of anorexia is made painfully clear. Lia starves herself because it is the only control she has over her disintegrating personality; anyway, why feed something so hateful? She cuts herself not to cause pain, but to let the pain – and the dirt – out. The dirt in this case is, of course, herself. As with the plotting, this fractured and utterly convincing interior monologue is intercut with the rather bored face she presents to the world around her.

And yet, throughout, there is the feeling that if somehow you could only reach in and talk to this girl, you could save her life. It’s an exhausting novel to read: brilliant, intoxicating, full of drama, love and, like all the best books of this kind, hope. It would be rare to find a novel in mainstream adult fiction prepared to pull out the dramatic stops this far, and difficult to imagine one in recent years that was prepared to be so bold stylistically. It’s a book that will be around for many years. It may not be an original piece, as these tricks have been pulled before in teen fiction. Yet it pulls them off with more skill and effect than anything I have ever read.”

Thank you, Mr. Burgess. Thank you very much indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UK cover                                                                                       US cover

Knocking off the rust

I feel like my blogging skills have gotten a bit rusty since the book tour. Sorry about that, friends. I promise to try harder.

Sometimes the problem is that the kind of thoughts that I want to put into a blog post feel like they will need hours of writing and shaping, and then I’ll have to find the right photo to go with them, or maybe a video, or maybe I ought compose an original tune for piano and mandolin, which means that first I’ll have to learn to play both instruments, and….

You get my drift.

This is the same kind of game my brain plays with me when it comes to my own writing. I hesitate to put any words down somedays because I can see all the things I need to do before I set the words down that will make those words shiny and perfect.

Bollocks.

The critical step of writing – any kind of writing – is to pluck the words from your forehead and set them down on paper or screen. Write, don’t think. Just get it down. I am going to try to walk my own talk on this blog in an effort to knock the rust off my brain and encourage the words to flow again.

So.

What kind of day is today? It’s a laundry day, a tying-up-loose-ends day. Trace Adkins on the stereo. And Big & Rich. Scaring the dogs as I sing along at the top of my lungs. Packing for this weekend’s writer’s conference. Planning a date with my husband. Wishing it was time to go to the gym. Ready to plant seeds in my soul.

How about you?

 

 

Snowy Day

We got a not-fully-anticipated 2 feet of snow late yesterday and last night.

No, the schools in my town were not closed. They didn’t even open late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I headed out to the cottage when it was still dark out, so I didn’t realize how beautiful it was outside. When the sun came up, I grabbed my camera.

 

 

 

 

 

This ancient maple tree is one of my favorite trees in our Forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Same tree seen over the roof of my writing cottage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I will plow my way back inside, put more wood on the fire, and keep reading and writing!