Friday, August 26, 2011

When does it start to feel real?

When I'm working on early drafts, my project feels like my own little secret.

The story is like the kind of dream you have that is so private and personal you don't want to share it with anyone for fear that as soon as you talk about it, the magic of it will disappear. And besides, your dreams rarely make sense to anyone but you.

But as I get close to finishing a draft, I start to form the words that will define what the heart is. And I can say to a few close friends something vague, but true. "It's about family."

That's about as far as I can go, because it all still feels like a dream I'm still clinging to. Trying to make sense of.

Finally, I finish a draft and get the nerve to share the story with my trusted critique partners. And they help me to find the actual bones of the story. And now I can feel the dream becoming less translucent and wispy, and a little more clear. A little more solid. A little more real.

It seems like another whole year (or two) goes by and I keep rewriting the dream, over and over. I know it's not a dream anymore, not really. But it still feels like one. Like something I could still lose. I share it with my agent. Go back to the beginning. Share it with my editor. Go back to the beginning. I ask my wise and wonderful friend Jennifer Richard Jacobson's question over and over: "Is it true yet? Is it true yet?"

Then finally, at some point in all this, my editor finally says, "I'm sending the manuscript to copy editing."

And suddenly, it dawns on me that this story I've only dared to share with a small handful of people I love and trust is going to be read by strangers.

That's when it finally starts to feel real.

But while I wait, I wonder. I doubt. Because that's what I do.

Finally, the copy edits arrive. Inside, I find a note tucked in from the copy manager. It is private, and personal, and it makes me cry. Especially when I get to the end:

I'm left ruminating on the power of that truth telling, knowing it will mean so much to your readers, in so many ways. Somehow that telling--the telling of it just so--offers solace. So thank you for the book, and I look forward to seeing it take shape.

It's this letter that gives me the courage to go back in again. This time, reading the words as if they are finally, in her words, a book taking shape. Then I let them go again.

Yesterday, they came back to me. My words have been type-set in a new font. They don't look like mine any more. But they are. And now, seeing them as they'll look inside an actual book, they feel as real as they ever will.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kirkus Interview-The Deleted Scene :-)

When a writer from Kirkus Reviews contacted me about doing an interview for their YA Blog, I admit I was pretty shocked. I mean, they even trademarked their motto: "The world's toughest book critics"!

But this writer was very kind, and even told me that one of my answers made him cry. That doesn't sound so tough to me. :-)

The interview went up today, and you can read it HERE

I love their tagline: "Jo Knowles talks about the beauty of butter..." LOL!

This interview has been cut WAY down, so many of my answers have been condensed. But since one question and answer were completely eliminated, I thought I'd provide it here, since this has been an issue with all of my books so far, and I am still trying to figure it all out:

There’s a lot of heavy subject matter here in the span of a book that isn’t incredibly long, yet it progresses smoothly. What was your key to merging so much - death, secret lives, secret relationships, psychological scars, amorous developments - without being clunky?-Gordon West

You know, I’m always surprised when people point these things out to me. I consider PEARL to be my lightest book so far, so when I see it described as “heavy” I think, What do you mean?? But when you point out the elements the way you do in your question, I can see your point. As for keeping the story progressing smoothly, that is always my biggest challenge, so I’m glad you didn’t find it too clunky. In most cases, the answer is revising over and over and over until it works. But with this book, while there was tons of revising, I think there was a little more going on. The truth is, we all walk around with our own invisible luggage. Some people (and yes, I’m talking about myself in particular) are incredibly good at hiding the weight we carry. I’m not sure this is a healthy thing, but I do think it might somehow be tied to the first part of my answer, which is that I wasn’t quite aware of all those elements as “elements” in the first place. Maybe that’s why they don’t appear to overwhelm the story.

I think this is not a very good answer and probably why it didn't make the final interview. I am still working on this idea of recognizing the true weight of the things I carry quietly. I suppose my characters are, too. :-)

What is one of your struggles and how are you working to overcome it?

Friday, August 5, 2011

More lessons in "The Year of Being a Writer"

This week has taken on a lovely rhythm and I'm sad to see it go.

My son spent half the day at circus camp, and I used that time to write/revise like the wind.

He'd come and we'd have lunch.

He'd read from his summer reading book and I'd write some more.

Then we'd read together.


That was pretty nice. But at the end of next week, I'll be starting on another freelance job and life will go back to its usual frenzy. My goal? To finish this revision before the freelance package arrives.

I am very nervous about this project because it was something I wrote knowing full well it might not sell. Well, I mean, that is true of every project, obviously. But I think this one has only one publisher I could sub it to, so that adds pressure.

When I was debating whether to write the story, knowing it could well be a "waste of time," my husband pointed out that this is clearly a story I need to tell, so I should write it and not worry about whether or not anyone would buy it. It's like what Jack Gantos said last weekend. "I think about what I want to write, not what I want to sell." So far that seems to have worked out pretty well for him, right?

As I make these final changes, I still have trouble quieting that horrid voice of doubt questioning whether I should have spent the last year and more working on this project. But with each edit, the voice gets a little more faint. Now, it's replaced with the imagined voices of my agent and editor, pointing out the remaining flaws as I try to read the words through their eyes and predict how they'll react to each chapter, each scene. But mostly, I know that is impossible. What I really need to do, is trust my own eyes. My own heart. So eventually I will try to quiet their voices, too.

Instead, I return to Jennifer Richard Jacobson's wise advice, and ask myself, "Is it true yet?"

Nearly. It nearly is.

We write to share the truths we need to tell. We write because discovering them leads us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other. Even though the discovery process can be brutal, we still need to do it. We need to allow ourselves to do it. Sometimes, we need to force ourselves. But what I've learned this time around is that, however painful it is, however long it takes, and whatever happens next, it wasn't a waste of time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Quotes and Inspiration from the Simmons Institute

I spent Saturday at the Simmons College Summer Institute. If you're not familiar, this is an incredible celebration of children's literature. Children's book authors and illustrators speak throughout the day, offering variations on the theme of the institute. This year, the theme was "The Body Electric."

In addition to having famous speakers, they also have two break-out sessions a day (called Professional Connections) with others in the field, such as book reviewers, scholars, and some (ahem) lesser-known authors. :-) So, I was asked to lead two break-out sessions. This was great fun and also very inspiring to see so many students who love children's literature as much as I do. And I was thrilled to see so many of them interested in writing! So, in case any of the attendees are reading this, THANKS for being such a great audience.

It was a day full of inspiration for me, really. So I thought I'd share some of the lines that stood out in particular:

From Byan Collier, a question:

"Think about the first time you stepped outside this morning. What color was the day?"

From David Small, some thoughts to ponder:

"A child whose mother doesn't love him always grows up with a hole in his heart."


"The body expresses what the mind doesn't allow yourself to utter."

From Sharon Draper, a gift:

"Celebrate the me that is yet to come."

And from Jack Gantos, a good reminder:

"I think about what I want to write, not what I want to sell."

One special surprise for me happened in the morning right before my first session. Just as I finally found the room I was to speak in, I heard a quiet male voice say, "Jo Knowles."

I turned, and there was my Communications Professor from my first year at Simmons, Bob White! Oh, how I loved that class. Talk about inspiration. The most important lesson I learned however, was a subtle one. I doubt I was even aware of it at the time, but I am sure it helped point me in the direction that eventually led me to where I am today. Bob showed me how effectively—how powerfully—one can communicate without speaking. He showed me that I didn't have to speak to be heard. I could write.

And so, when I saw him standing there, looking like the spitting image of the Dumbledore I imagined long before I watched the movies (and of course I know why that is now, Bob being so much like Dumbledore himself, providing inspiration and hope in his unique way), my heart pretty much melted.

I wish I'd had time to visit with him and tell him how much it meant to me to see him standing there, waiting to say hello. Because at the moment, it meant the world. It was the sort of small act of kindness that can make someone who often feels small herself, feel quite big.

Thank you, Bob.