I’m writing my first book. It’s a middle-grade chapter book for girls.
I started writing one year and ten days ago. When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing or where my journey would take me. I just knew I’d always wanted to write a book, so just before I turned 40, I decided I’d dedicate the time and effort to reaching that goal. I didn’t even know what genre I wanted to tackle. I just knew I was a busy mom with a crazy dog and a very supportive husband.
At first, I thought I’d try memoir. I’d always kept a journal as a child, and I wanted to explore how “full circle” my life had become. My parents divorced when I was seven; now that I’m a happily married mother of three children, I wanted to write about the differences between my own childhood and theirs. But, delving into the emotions of my past seemed a heavier task than I was willing to tackle, especially as a new writer.
I told a few friends and acquaintances I was thinking about writing a novel, and everyone said, “You ought to do it!” I was leaning toward a book for young girls, primarily because I loved the way books captivated my then 8-year-old daughter, Maggie. We discussed and devoured books constantly, and even dreamed up ideas to someday write our own mother-daughter book.
During the summer of 2008, I ran into a lovely friend I only ever see in South Haven, Michigan. Her name is Nancy Glazer, and she has three beautiful daughters. Maggie loves to play with her girls, especially since she doesn’t have any sisters herself. Standing on the beach while we watched our girls play, she asked if I was still teaching preschool.
“No,” I said. “I turned 40 this past April, and I promised myself I’d start the novel I’ve always wanted to write this year. I’d like to write a book for young girls.” Instead of a comment like, “Good for you,” Nancy suggested I visit the website of a children’s author from her hometown of Deerfield, Illinois. The author, Brenda Ferber, had just published her first children’s novel to rave reviews. Her book, Julia’s Kitchen, had won numerous awards and accolades, including the Sydney Taylor Manuscript award. Nancy suggested I visit Brenda’s website to get an idea of how a first-time author went about the writing process.
As soon as I got back home to Evanston, Illinois, Maggie and I paid a visit to the library. I was on a mission to find Julia’s Kitchen. I had to see for myself if this “Brenda Ferber” was the real deal. Mags and I sat down to read our books, and by the third chapter of Julia’s Kitchen, I had tears running down my face. The writing was powerful (think Judy Blume) and the experience beyond meaningful (Maggie noticed my tears and wanted to know what had moved me so deeply). My daughter and I sat on a beanbag chair in the Evanston Public Library, reading over each other’s shoulders, laughing and falling silent, simultaneously, over and over again.
When I got home, I checked out Brenda’s website at http://www.brendaferber.com . Its impressive presentation and helpful tips about writing simply amazed me. I couldn’t believe how far she was willing to go for the sake of other writers out there. I literally thought, “Hmm, she’s giving away all her secrets.” I followed several of the site’s links, and each one led me to a unique writer or group or society. Still, I always found a common theme: share and share alike. Everyone in the children’s book writing/illustrating industry seemed to take this “pass it around” attitude very seriously. The children’s writing community was a very welcoming place.
From August 2008 until January 2009, I did what many children’s authors suggested doing: READ, READ, READ. I read everything I could get my hands on: all the things my daughter loved, hated, and heard about. I spent time in the Newberry Award section in several libraries and bookstores, reading with fascination, awe and often envy the books honored by this distinction. I got to know patterns, styles and page counts in middle-grade chapter books. I watched children kneel on the floor, holding books open, deeply drawn in by the author’s first pages. I witnessed the amazing force children’s books have in this fleeting age — and I wanted to learn everything about it.
Ah, but life was going on all around me. For those six months, I often felt I was stealing time to “work on my craft,” but the reality of three children, a dog, a busy husband, volunteer projects at schools — and oh yes, a house to keep up — demanded more of my time than my “writing.” I often found myself frustrated, bitter, or disappointed that I wasn’t WRITING. I’d been making notes and jotting thoughts everywhere, inspired by so many little stories in my head. Would I try humor? A coming of age story? A mystery? Friendship struggles? Everything sounded great and difficult at the same time. My focus was non-existent, so I just read more. I’m a slow reader, but I savored every word. I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Overboard, and every Judy Blume children’s book ever published. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators at http://www.scbwi.org (and didn’t even know there was a listserve until months later). I also read adult novels like Why I’m Like This, Mommies Who Drink, The Road, In an Instant, and The Middle Place, just to stay in touch with my adult interests.
I also devoured writerly magazines like The Sun, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal and The Writer, and writer-type books such as Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction and Writing Children’s Books and This Year You Write Your Novel. I formed a writers’ group with an amazing writer (and now friend) with whom I don’t deserve to hang with, Jill Schacter (http://www.aheartbreakdiary.blogspot.com). I lived and breathed writing, and I couldn’t get enough. I kept the variety alive so I didn’t bore of one activity. At times I felt I was spinning my wheels a bit, but at least I knew I was getting some “writerly exercise” while doing it.
In December 2008, I submitted an article I’d written about losing the diamond in my engagement ring to the New York Times Modern Love section, hoping against hope I’d be published and on my way. REJECTED. I laugh now thinking back. Did I really believe I’d be published? How grandiose of me!
On January 15, 2009, I distinctly remember sitting at a table at The Lucky Platter, a fantastic restaurant in Evanston. I was by myself with all my writing “stuff”: spiral, piles of notes, many pens, tea, cell phone turned OFF. I remember feeling overcome by disappointment — how could I have let all this time pass without writing ANYTHING substantive? I’d told my husband and my friends and my extended family that I was going to write a novel, and here I was, by myself, with nothing but a bunch of scraps and post its and disorganized notes and scribbles.
Then I thought, “Oh for God’s sake, quit feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got a wonderful life and a husband whose job allows you to stay home and follow your dream to write…”
And then it hit me. What if Mike lost his job? What if we didn’t have all the comforts we’re used to? What if it all went away? How would we handle it? How would we survive?
And then a very simple thought popped up: How would the heroine of MY NOVEL handle this situation?
And that, in a nutshell, is how I came up with the idea for my book.
I imagined a little girl, a little older than my daughter, whose parents both lose their jobs in this economic recession. Everything she’s been used to, everything she’s taken for granted, is now gone.
And, I’ve never stopped writing about it since. It’s been one year and 10 days since that idea hit me, and I’ve thought about, written about, talked about and researched ideas for my novel, tentatively called My Year Afloat.
From January 15 to April 8 (my 41st birthday), I wrote non-stop — ideas for storylines, notes for readers’ guides, and diagrams (when words failed me). I spoke to anyone interested in listening to my plot and conflict and character issues. I put of all my crazy notes and ideas into a binder, organizing them by subject (ie., foreclosure, materialism, characters’ everyday lives, etc.).
Earlier that Spring, another friend, Kendra Morrill, overheard me say I wanted to write a novel. One day, while we were picking up our kindergarten sons from school, she told me about a critique group she’d joined. Steve and Sharon Fiffer’s Wesley Writers’ Workshop was something Kendra thought I’d really like, too. I knew the workshop was primarily geared toward memoir, but I was desperate to find other dedicated writers and have some sort of STRUCTURE, so I jumped at the chance to join this weekly group at the Fiffer’s gorgeous home. The books Sharon and Steve have written are numerous and wonderful, including collaborations (Home, Family, and Body, plus 50 Ways to Help Your Community: A Handbook For Change), as well as their own works. Steve’s include Work Hard, Study…and Keep Out of Politics, Three Quarters, Two Dimes and A Nickel: A Memoir of Becoming Whole, and Tyrannosaurus Sue; Sharon’s feature the Jane Wheel Mystery Series (Buried Stuff, Dead Guy’s Stuff, Hollywood Stuff, Killer Stuff, Scary Stuff, and The Wrong Stuff) among others. Check out Sharon’s website: http://www.sharonfiffer.com/
The first class assignment was to come prepared with a mock review — written by me — of the piece I was working on. The review had to be positive, and it had to describe what my writing was all about. The assignment completely focused me. It forced me to summarize all those little bits and pieces and ideas into a cohesive explanation of what I’m writing. Here’s what I wrote for that assignment, March 10, 2009:
My Year Afloat — A Mock Review, Written by ME
Christine Wolf’s debut novel, titled My Year Afloat, touches young readers and adults alike, but for very different – and meaningful – reasons.
My Year Afloat chronicles a year in the life of Maeve Winters, a twelve-year-old girl from a Chicago suburb whose family is touched profoundly by the sinking U.S. economy. When Maeve’s parents BOTH lose their jobs, she and her fourteen-year-old brother are suddenly adrift in ways they never imagined.
The life Maeve once knew, and took for granted, has suddenly vanished. Activities she used to dread, such as cleaning her room, organizing her various collections, and taking her dog to the park are no longer necessary. The family is forced to sell their home at a huge loss to prevent foreclosure.
Maeve and her father move onto the family’s sailboat in a Chicago Harbor, while her brother and Mom move in with relatives in Kansas City. The arrangement is supposed to be for the summer ONLY. Just until one parent finds a new job. But will it be in Chicago, or Missouri?
Maeve tries to make the best of her “adventure”, but everything is all wrong. Her father’s stressed about finding a job, her Mom is hundreds of miles away, and the worst part is, Maeve’s living on a boat with less room than her old bedroom.
Maeve’s efforts as a mother’s helper for her father’s former boss are equally trying. Working in a penthouse in Chicago’s Lake Point Tower by day, then sleeping on a 400 square foot boat each night, leave her confused and emotionally drained.
Wolf captures the conflicted emotions of a twelve-year-old with moving clarity. Readers young and old will identify with Maeve’s initial adolescent detachment, then ride the emotional rollercoaster of her taut, upended existence.
So often, children’s feelings are soothed and reassured in the face of unpredictable or dire situations…to the point of being ignored. Wolf captures the profound feelings one girl experiences when all seems lost. Her novel creates a strong context in which parents, teachers and families can discuss abstract subjects like change, adaptation, bravery and appreciation. My Life Afloat holds the reader by weaving true-to-life examples of angst, hope and perseverance throughout. During her year afloat from life as she knew it, Maeve loses her mother, her home, her dog, her friendships, and her equilibrium. In the process of staying afloat, Maeve discovers strengths she never knew, and the awesome power of humility.
Maeve’s struggle to get back to her old life is at times heartbreaking, as witnessed by letters she writes to her mother (the only other “girl” in the family), her brother (with whom she’s never been close), her father (who’s struggling with depression), and even the President of the United States. She yearns for normalcy, but discovers that courage can deliver something even better.
Christine Wolf and her husband and three children live in Evanston, Illinois. Catch Ms. Wolf at her next book reading and signing at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators next month, as well as at several local mother/daughter book groups in the Chicagoland area.
How’s that for hubris?
I was on such a high after my well-received self-review, that when I shared my first chapter on April 14, 2009 with the group, I went home devastated by the reactions it drew. No one was mean…in fact, just the opposite: everyone was so encouraging about the idea I’d presented in March, but they knew my execution just wasn’t right. To me, the execution had seemed great on paper and in my head, but when I read my first 15 pages aloud that night, it became utterly apparent that I’d written in the wrong voice. The diary entries I’d planned to use throughout the book were stilted and cumbersome. I gave up writing entirely for one month after that class. I wondered if I’d even go back to it.
On June 9, 2009, I presented again at the Wesley Writers’ Workshop and found a stronger voice for my heroine: 1st person narrative. After that class, I brushed myself off and once again started thinking about the novel every day, this time from my narrator’s perspective…taking notes, writing scenes, getting excited. I found a really cool software program called yWriter (http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html) after reading The Writer. It helped get me excited to set writing goals, keep track of word counts, etc. I used it for a short time, and decided it wouldn’t be for me long-term. However, I thought it really was a great, free program.
In early June 2009, I received an email from Nancy Glazer (who hadn’t forgotten I was trying to write a children’s novel). She’d received an email from Brenda Ferber about her updated website. Nancy forwarded the email to me, and I checked it out. THIS TIME, I noticed that Brenda was starting a children’s writing class called North Shore Writer’s Studio (http://www.northshorewriters.wordpress.com). I immediately emailed her to find out if there were any spaces left. She said, yes, there was one more. Brenda and her friend, Jenny Meyerhoff (http://www.jennymeyerhoff.com), run the workshop and it’s been beyond any expectations I could have had. During that first session, six children’s writers (including me) submitted 5 pages of their work to the group before our meeting; we’d all read and comment on the submissions; then at our weekly gathering, we’d read the pieces aloud, and discuss each one in detail. I’m now on my 3rd session with North Shore Writer’s Studio, and I look forward to each meeting (they’re now every other week). They motivate me to move my novel forward. Brenda and Jenny — whose written her own fantastic books for children (Third Grade Baby) and YA (Queen of Secrets, June 2010) — teach, listen, critique, advise and encourage. I can’t say enough about how far this workshop has brought me.
Throughout the summer of 2009, all three of my kids were home, and I found it very difficult to carve out time for writing. I was going to 2-3 critique groups a week in June/July. I’d often find myself going into groups wondering what the priority was: voice? perspective? plot? arc of story? character development? tone? I knew in my heart the story needed telling, that it was original and it was mine. But sometimes, I felt like those were the only 3 things I really knew.
In one of my classes at the North Shore Writers’ Studio, I asked Brenda Ferber how she writes with her kids around all summer? Her advice was (and I’m paraphrasing), ” You DON’T write when your kids are around. But think about it: At those times, you’re doing something that’s more important than writing. You’re choosing the right thing to do at those moments.” How true. Taking her advice, I tried to enjoy time with my family and keep in mind there was always time for the novel. Sometimes it was easier than others, particularly when the family was sailing!
September 2009: My kids went back to school, and I was thrilled and reinvigorated to finish my novel. I began reading Writing It Right by Sandy Asher. Phenomenal book about revising. I attended an agent talk at Chicago’s Story Studio and spent a luxurious day there writing and thinking about my novel. I went back to Story Studio twice after that for their Write-A-Thon days, which are wonderful, day-long marathon writing sessions filled with comfortable, quiet surroundings and lots of snacks and caffeine and writers. Very motivating.
Oct/Nov 2009: I wanted to give up a number of times. I went to my critique groups but sometimes it felt like too much time was spent critiquing others’ pieces and not enough time spent writing my own. I’ve learned, however, that critiquing others’ work (and articulating what I like/don’t like) is extremely informative for my own writing process. All my instructors told me that was the case, but I had to see it for myself.
During this time, I also felt lacking in discipline with my writing. I’d intended to head into this new school year by writing every day, then every other day, then, as often as possible, then, when it got really bad, enough just to have something to turn in to my weekly writers’ groups. I was so curious how my instructors found time to write when they, too, seemed to have other things going on, like kids and houses and pets and vacations. How come they’re all published and I’m not??? I came to learn that they ALL avoid writing in the same way each of us does: checking email, organizing closets, meeting someone for lunch, checking email some more, eating, checking email… The key to getting published AND having a life is not giving up on either one. Keep plugging away at both. Famous last words from a still-as-of-yet unpublished author!
Two things kicked me in the butt and got me moving forward: 1. I signed up for the November 2009 SCBWI Illinois Prairie Writer’s Day conference, and 2. I registered for the January 2010 SCBWI New York conference. I have broken the bank and my husband’s probably wondering WHY this novel isn’t finished…but I’m still hanging on. The November SCBWI conference was the first of its kind I’d ever attended. I was stunned at how many people like me there are out there. It’s both heartening and defeating (!) to know I’m accompanied by so many others on this journey. I can ONLY IMAGINE how magnified those feelings will be when I attend the New York Conference later this week.
Which brings me to today.
This is my first novel, and its also my first blog. I’m learning as I go, and I hope you enjoy the ride.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you.