Saturday marked the one month pre-versary of the release of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and there are so many thoughts running through my head and emotions in my heart.
I’ve loved stories since I was a kid. I was obsessed with spending as much time as possible at the library. No amount of books was enough for me to put on my library card (the librarian differed in this thinking). I’m an only child, was very shy and by the time I was 12, I had lived in four countries and numerous towns. The libraries were my constant and the characters in books my friends.
I started telling my own stories when I was about 5. I wrote plays then tried to get my friends and cousins to act in them. Next I wrote plays for puppets then put on the puppet shows — the puppets were easier to direct than my friends and cousins. And I created a neighborhood newspaper that reported on the goings on of our street’s cars, cats and cracks in the sidewalk; it didn’t have a huge readership and closed quickly.
All the while, I was reading books, but I never dreamed I could make one. I saw the names of the authors on the covers, and thought how special that person must be to write this amazing story and put it in a book.
When I got older, my love of books didn’t waver. I read whenever and wherever I could. When we moved to Grand Cayman when I was 12, I adopted a tree in our rented house as the perfect place to read. When I wasn’t there, I was reading on the beach, or on the rocky shore of Smith Cove with my legs dangling above the waves.
I also loved stories in movies and would imagine that I was with those kids who saved E.T., and I searched the sky for a sign of his planet. I imagined I was in Jurassic Park, and I could see the dinosaurs looming over the trees on Seven Mile Road. And in school I developed a love for the stage and actually becoming a character from words written on a page. It was magical.
I just loved stories, no matter how they’re told — although books were always my favorite.
When I was old enough to start thinking about work and a career, I so wanted stories to be part of it. I wanted to tell stories through writing and maybe acting, but I knew that only special people did those things. Still I couldn’t let it go, and I started writing my first novel while I was in college, but when my computer died, taking with it the only copy of my first half-written novel, I didn’t start another one. Instead I graduated and worked as a journalist and wrote about real life news. Sure, I was writing stories, but not the way I wanted to.
My love of writing my own stories didn’t disappear. It poked and prodded me, swelled and nudged, and when my husband and I moved to Los Angeles for his work, I decided to try again (just for fun, of course), this time with screenplays. I was in LA, afterall; when in Rome…
While working as a journalist and a managing editor for magazines, I studied and wrote, and read craft books, and wrote, and submitted screenplays to contests, and wrote, figuring out the very different skill of telling a story in just dialog and a few stage directions. One was a semi-finalist in a contest; the next a finalist. I couldn’t ever see any of them getting made — I wasn’t one of those special people — but it was fun to try.
After writing five screenplays, I tried out a technique I’d read about in Robert McKee’s book Story: Write a really long, very detailed treatment, with no dialogue and lots of action and description. When you’re done, McKee said, your characters will be so anxious to speak, the screenplay will roll right out of you. I’m sure he’s right, but I never got to test the theory. When I finished the treatment, I realized I’d enjoyed writing it more than any of the screenplays. I loved describing the strange looking rock the kids found, how the air fizzed when they lifted it to reveal the stairs going underground, the damp smell of the cave… To me, that was so much more fun that EXT: DESERT.
So I went back to writing novels.
That treatment became my first novel, and while I doubt that it will ever be published, I hold that story close to my heart. I learned a lot from the book, and most importantly, I started to find my voice with one line: “She was a crumpled pile of girl…” Another middle-grade novel followed, this one about aliens. Then another about a boy who woke up on a beach with no memory of who he was or how he got there.
All this time, I never truly believed any of these books would be published — I wasn’t that special person — but a spring of hope had started to bubble within my heart, mostly from people like my husband and my critique group telling me they could be published. And I had plugged into the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and made amazing friends who had books published. And while I still didn’t believe that it would happen for me — that I could be that special — it couldn’t hurt to try.
So I queried and got rejected and queried and got rejected and… I could go on with this thread of rejections for a looooooong time. The rejections were hard, because each one felt like a reinforcement of my well-worn idea that my stories would never get published because that happened to special people and I wasn’t special. Every time someone read my work and said it was good, I wanted it to be published more; and every time it was rejected, I thought I should give up.
But a funny thing happened along the way: I did give up … sort of. I gave up on my need to be published. It made me sad sometimes, to think that these stories might never be read by anyone except my family and critique partners. But I accepted it. I gave up the feeling that I had to be published to be a writer. I was learning about craft and making stories better; I was digging deep and twisting words and shaping sentences, creating emotions and action and living, breathing characters. I was telling stories I wanted to tell and I was having fun, even if no one else read them. I still had query letters out, but when rejections came in, I didn’t care as much. Of course it was rejected, I told myself. I wasn’t special and publication wasn’t in my future — writing was.
And it was while I was focused on writing more novels that an agent offered me representation. I had been wishing for this and working for it for so long, and I hadn’t believed it would happen. Then it did, and that spring of hope in my heart bubbled higher. Someone who wasn’t my friend or my family believed in my work. I didn’t know if this would translate into a book of mine ever being published, but it was still wonderful.
After a few rounds of revision, the story about the boy on the beach went out to editors — and the rejections started rolling in. “Yep,” that small voice in my head told me, “you’re not one of those special people whose stories are made into books. Told you so.”
But it was different now. When I was focused on writing, I was happy. I hadn’t expected an agent to sign me, and then, when I was deep in the middle of writing a new novel, my agent found me. If my book wasn’t published, I would be sad, but I knew that if I kept digging deep and writing, I would be happy.
Submissions for THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST took more than a year, rejections from around 14 editors, and another big revision — until on Jan. 31, 2017, it got offers from two publishing houses.
It took me many, many, many years to realize that girl who thought stories in books came from special people is so very wrong. Books don’t come from a select few special people. Books are born out of love, need, and hard work — lots and lots of hard work.
And in one month from today, a book I wrote, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, will be published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster.
It still feels surreal, but this is the impossible becoming possible. And I’m looking forward to celebrating.
I hope you’ll join me too. The Boy will have his own Book Birthday Bash on June 26 here. Then I’ll be off speaking at a bunch events, so I’ll be celebrating the book’s launch with a party on July 28 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. I hope you can make it!
Thank you for celebrating with me and for reading about this boy. And I look forward to celebrating your book releases, because if I can do this, so can you.