The Missouri Mentorship

I don’t remember how I heard about the Missouri Mentorship for the first time.  It could have been a mass email.  Or the announcement could have just come in an article for MO SCRIBBLES, Missouri’s newsletter for the local chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  But when I found out about the opportunity to spend a year working with noted author Gary L. Blackwood on a project, I knew that I wanted to apply.  All Missouri members of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) could send in a writing sample and an essay describing what the mentorship would mean to them.  

There was just one problem.  I wasn’t living in Missouri anymore.  My mail still went to a Missouri address, a P.O. box with my husband’s company.  But our letters and magazines were sent through company mail to Merano, Italy.  I read through the announcement again.  Even though I wasn’t living in Missouri anymore, I was still active in the chapter as a regular columnist for their quarterly newsletter.  So I finally wrote to Sue Bradford Edwards, our RA.  She said she’d discuss my status with a few other regional advisers and then get back to me.  Eventually, she let me know that I could apply.  

I was almost finished with the book that was to become SUSPECT for the first time, so I sent in the first ten pages or so of that as my writing sample.  In my essay, I shared my frustration about getting plenty of rejections that let me know that my projects were well-written.  What else could I do but write well? 

On January 21, 1999, I received an email from Sue that Gary had picked me out of the top manuscripts that had been forwarded to him.  Later that day, Gary sent an email that contained my first professional feedback for SUSPECT:

First, of course, the quality of your writing. Your prose is lucid and kid-friendly; you’re good at dramatizing through detail and action and dialogue instead of just relying on narration; your dialogue is snappy and believable; your premise is a clever and compelling one.

But as we were discussing the project that we were going to pursue together, he made a few points about the marketibility of my mystery at that time.  He wound up being fairly prophetic and pretty much explains why the project eventually went into hibernation on my hard drive:

“Young adult books just plain don’t sell as well, on average, as middle readers, and so publishers are extremely choosy about what they take on. They tend to want either very “literary”, perhaps controversial, books or else flat out genre books, mostly horror and romance, it looks like, to be published in paperback.

There’s very little room, it seems,for “midlist” books (I hate that term, but it’s a favorite designation of publishers). This is true of all areas of publishing, of course, to some extent, but because there are more middle reader books published, there’s more room for variety.

THE WINE ROAD is a genre book of sorts, since it’s a mystery, but as far as I can tell from scouting the bookstores, YA mysteries lean heavily toward the gritty, even the sensational, more like Christopher Pike than like Nancy Drew. Not that yours is Nancy Drewish, but, judging from the chapter you sent, neither is it especially hard-edged. And yet at the same time it’s not likely to work as a title for middle readers. Even if you made the protagonist younger, the romance element and the mother’s murder make it too grown up for that age level.”

Gary and I agreed to start a new project from the ground up so that I could learn about developing plot and character.  My softball novel that we worked on together never did sell.  But it helped me learn a process.  The next two books that I wrote became DEFENDING IRENE and SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  The ones after that haven’t sold yet, but they did attract the interest of an agent. 

I can never, ever pay Gary back for what he did for me.  As noted science fiction writer Robert Heinlein pointed out decades ago, you can only pay forward.  Eventually, I was able to serve as the Missouri Mentor.  And most of my students at the Institute of Children’s Literature appreciate the way I’m willing to go the extra mile with them to get a marketable manuscript.  (My rather idiosyncratic approach isn’t right for everyone, but I reall do try my best.)

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