Monday, January 26, 2015

On Writing (for Real)

Nearly two and a half years ago, I entered a new phase of life—one in which I gave myself permission to write with a purpose. I’d been blogging to stay sane (like so many other mamas of littles), but I found myself looking at five hours a week with both of my children in school, and I was ready to be a real writer.

Well, as life would have it, I did do some writing, but not nearly as much as I wanted, and then everything went topsy turvy when I found myself homeschooling and running a non-profit project, which took all of my waking brainpower hours.

Then, this past summer, almost two years after vowing I was going to be a real writer, I was in a completely new phase of life—with both children in school all day every day, living in a new state where I had very few true commitments or friends who required face time.

For those of you who have been following my tiny saga on social media, let me just say THANK YOU for all of your kind words and virtual fist bumps as I updated you on my progress. I’m not vain enough to think that you’re all lying awake at night wondering how soon my book will be finished, but I do know that my village has carried me up the mountain with texts and phone calls and snail mail, as well as the barrage of ‘likes’ every time I update my word count.

I realized somewhere along the way that I was posting word count updates, but I wasn’t really filling anyone in on content. So, for anyone who is interested in what this process has looked like for me thus far, here you go.

I committed to plopping my butt down for two hours five days a week. I wrote it on my to-do list every single day—8:30-10:30 WRITE. From mid-August to mid-November, I sat. There were a few days sprinkled in there when the piles of laundry won, and of course, there were a couple of days when life said, “Oops! You have a sick kid!" or "This appointment can only be scheduled in the morning.” But really—and this is HUGE—my butt was on the couch (or bed or chair) for about 91.5% of that scheduled time. A solid A-.

Just about every book on writing gives this as the first piece of advice—you have to have a schedule. Many of them also say viewing writing as an actual job and not a hobby is crucial to success. This is hard for me. Every job I have ever had has been paid by the hour or at the very least by tips. The idea that I could put hours and hours and hours of work into a project and never be compensated in any way gives me the tummy rumbles.

I mean, yes—writing is an art, a craft, a hobby, an outlet. And there is intrinsic worth and satisfaction, not to mention therapeutic benefits in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). SURE. But when Scott and I came to the decision that I would take a gap year of sorts while both of our children are in school full-time before pursuing full-time employment (the kind with a guaranteed cash money check that comes every other Friday), it wasn’t so I could find myself.

I am not lost. I do not need to be found. I want to be a writer who sells books.


I began by writing essays about ALL THE THINGS. My goal was to write a memoir-ish book in the same vein as what I’d been blogging for several years. Creative non-fiction for adults has been my jam since grad school when I wrote a book about my time on the Mercy Ship off the coast of West Africa. It comes easily, and it’s one of my true loves.

My first true love, though, has always been writing for children. I wrote my first legitimate picture book in high school—a story about a little girl named Penelope who hates getting up for school in the morning (I can neither confirm nor deny the possibility of autobiographical content in this story). I have written bits of other picture books along the way.

So, when my adult non-fiction started feeling forced and unlovable, I fell into the loving arms of children’s lit and wrote a picture book called My Name is Elikem, based on one of our dear friends in Ghana. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group to help me figure out if the book worked at all. The overwhelming response was, “THIS IS NOT THE WHOLE BOOK.”

The problem with that response is that picture books can only be so long, and the story people were asking me to tell was a longer one than would fit in 32 pages.  Someone—I don’t remember who, but I’m going to say it was my friend, Katie, because I love her—suggested I try to morph it into a middle grade novel.


This had never occurred to me, so I went home and stared at the screen for a few days trying to picture what that would look like. Over the next few weeks, an idea for a middle grade novel based on our travels to West Africa emerged like a group of old timey baseball players in a corn field. I started building, and it came.

I leave on February 5th for NYC, where I will present the first 500 words (gulp…) to a round table critique group including important-ish agent/publisher types. I’ll spend the rest of the weekend hobnobbing and trying not to stutter or draw too much attention to my nervous pit stains. This conference will be the first of its kind for me, and best case scenario, I’ll make some connections with people who can be guiding lights for me to figure out the best path for turning this book into a published book.

Again, thank you to everyone who has encouraged me thus far. Cross your fingers and say a prayer or do whatever else you do that I have the right words at the right time to convince the right people that this is the right book for right now.

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