In today’s Writer Odyssey Wednesday, Melanie Conklin offers some key advice to writers: WALK AWAY. Now I know that may seem crazy when you’re trying to break into publishing, or on the cusp of writing something brilliant, but the words hold greater meeting than you think. Walk Away doesn’t mean give up, let go of your dream, it simply means give your brain time to rest. To process what seems like impossible edits or painful writer’s block. It’s an out. A way to give yourself time to figure out what you need to make your writing stronger. Personally, I’ve had to back away many times from a project just to get perspective on what’s not working. And that is OK. As Melanie puts it so brilliantly, “listen when your heart is asking for a break, and let yourself have it.”
Many thanks to Melanie for sharing her writing journey today…
Amy: When did you first know you wanted to write a middle grade novel?
Melanie: Not long after I started writing, I began a serious study of literature and writing craft. As I studied, I realized the classic books from my formative years were all considered “middle grade” stories–books like Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. I started reading modern middle grade offerings from authors like Rebecca Stead, Anne Ursu, and R.J. Palacio, and that’s when I knew that I, too, had something to say in the middle grade language.
Amy: What inspired you to write COUNTING THYME?
Melanie: I lived in Brooklyn for several years, in a neighborhood called Park Slope. There was a family in our neighborhood whose child suffered from neuroblastoma, and I began following his mother’s blog posts, even though they often left me in tears. I was overwhelmed by the pain and struggle that this family suffered through, even with cutting-edge treatment for their son. I also joined a local effort to raise funds for pediatric cancer research called Cookies for Kid’s Cancer, because I had to do something to help. Several years later, I began writing Counting Thyme, largely in response to this question: what was it like to be the sibling of a sick child? Naturally, neuroblastoma was the illness that came to mind for me as the cancerous villain that turns Thyme’s world upside down.
Amy: Was COUNTING THYME your first completed manuscript or do you have others you’ve shelved?
Melanie: I enjoy writing many different projects, often in different genres, but I don’t always complete every project. At the time, Counting Thyme was my third completed manuscript. The first, I shelved due to the typical (embarrassing) issues: a protagonist who awakens on the first page, proceeds to develop magical powers, and is good at everything in her life. That one will never see the light of day (although my agent says: never say never!). My second manuscript was a magical adventure story that I wrote specifically for my sons–they even starred in it! At the urging of a few writing friends, I did query this manuscript, but despite several requests and one generous R&R offer, it wasn’t THE ONE. In the meantime, I also wrote portions of a historical YA, a space opera, and lots of flash fiction…because I like to keep busy, and also because I believe in the old tenet that practice makes perfect (or at least better!).
Amy: Do you use beta readers or critique partners? If so, how instrumental are they to your writing process?
Melanie: I have a wonderful beta reader group called MGbetareaders. We have a private forum and email loop which I have used extensively to get feedback on everything, from queries to outlines to complete drafts. I’m a firm believer in the value of critique partners who give you professional feedback in a timely fashion, and with NO holds barred. There is no better way to see your work in a new light than through another reader’s eyes. Our critique group has become such a well-oiled machine that we even run our own group blog now, called Kidliterati.com, where we talk about all things kidlit.
Amy: How many agents did you query for COUNTING THYME? Did you receive immediate responses or did you have to wait a while for replies?
Melanie: The querying process for Counting Thyme went pretty quickly, even though I wasn’t the one who started it! One of my CPs was so excited about the manuscript that she goaded me into participating in a twitter pitch party. I tweeted about the book once, and ended up with three requests (note: don’t do this unless your MS is READY!). Luckily, I only had a few line edits left from my beta readers, so I wrapped up my revisions and responded to the requests. Then I queried the agents at the top of my list, including Peter Knapp, whom I’d noticed at WriteOnCon the summer before. He wrote such insightful comments on the forums at WOC that I knew I would be interested in working with him. Luckily, Pete requested my manuscript right away, read at the speed of light, and emailed me during the Super Bowl to schedule “the call,” which I’ll never forget.
Amy: What can you tell me about “the call” with your agent, Peter Knapp? How did you know he was the right choice for you?
Melanie: My call with Pete was scheduled for nine in the morning, which was a little crazy because my kids are barely out the door at that time. Luckily, they kept me busy, so by the time the phone rang I was only 99% nervous. I think I was anxious that Pete and I wouldn’t see eye to eye, and that once I heard his input on the manuscript, all of the excitement would fizzle out of his offer. Luckily, Pete not only “got” my manuscript, he also had great ideas about how to make it even better. I come from a background in product design, and teamwork has always been essential for me, so Pete’s comments made me so eager to get to work. As the week wore on, I spoke with other agents, and often found myself hoping that they wouldn’t be a match. That’s how I knew that Pete was the one for me–I literally couldn’t stand the idea of working with anyone else!
Amy: As many writers know the publishing world is very hard to break into. What was the one thing you did to help garner agent attention?
Melanie: When it comes to garnering agent attention, my answer might not be the inside scoop you’re looking for, but I believe it’s the truth: write great books. Study the craft of writing. Beta read as much as possible for other writers. Go back to your favorite novels and study them with your writer brain. Break down how books work by learning about three act structure, and conflict, and stakes, and character arcs. Write short stories and flash fiction to learn how to keep your prose compact and efficient. Try screenwriting to hone your dialogue skills. Even twitter is an opportunity to learn how to be economical with words. Do all of these things, and keep writing. Study the market, read a lot, and keep writing. I believe that this work leads to improvement, and to great writing, and that is how you grab an agent’s attention. It also doesn’t hurt to target the right agents with your query (based on what they are seeking), and to sprinkle a little fairy dust over your laptop before you hit send.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Melanie: I love this question, because it hits on a secret of mine: I quit writing all the time. Meaning, when I hit a wall (whether it be on a new draft, a revision, or a rewrite), I give myself permission to WALK AWAY. I’ve even announced it out loud to my husband. “I’m quitting,” I say, and he nods, and three days later I’m writing again. That may seem a little nutso, but I need to give myself permission to let go of a problem in order to find the solution. I need to give up every once in a while, even if that’s only for 3 days (or 3 weeks), because my subconscious needs time to process. My linear, analytical side cannot always take the forefront. That’s why shows like The Vampire Diaries exist–to give us writers time off, to process our troubles in our subconscious mind while enjoying the scenery. My advice is to listen when your heart is asking for a break, and to let yourself have it. Each day is a new day.
Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and all-around lover of words and those who create them. Her debut novel for middle grade readers, Counting Thyme, will be published by Putnam & Sons in 2016. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs. For more on Melanie, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.