Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Member Profile: Kathryn Erskine on Mockingbird and How it Got Published

When I sat down to blog about how Mockingbird got published, I realized it would be a short (and somewhat annoying) post: I had an editor already and she loved Mockingbird so she published it. The end. The real story is how did I get an editor in the first place? And how long it took to get the point where I could blithely say my editor loved it.

Once upon a time . . . OK, it wasn’t that long ago, but it has been thirteen years, I took a neighborhood class on writing for children. Perhaps the best tip I learned from that class was to form a critique group, not only for giving and getting feedback on my work, but also as a support group. The core group of us is still together and a big part of how I got this far. Working as a lawyer and raising young children, I had much less time to write than I would have liked, but my group kept me on task.

I decided to write short stories for magazines. That was a mistake. If I’d ever had any skill at writing short, my legal training ruined it for me (note the length of this post!). Anything I tried to write turned into a novel. So I took Mary Quattlebaum’s writing workshop as the “outstanding” newbie—and by outstanding, I mean standing out from the much more talented and seasoned writers. They were very nice and patient with me, especially Mary, who teaches for The Writer's Center so, fortunately, many others can benefit from her kindness, encouragement, and mentoring wisdom.

I took classes, went to conferences, read books, practiced my craft and, after two whole entire years without success, I was wondering if I should give up. Since I’d already paid for a local conference, however, I decided to attend. There I heard an inspirational keynote address by Patricia Lee Gauch, famed children’s author and publisher, icon of the industry. What she said spoke directly to me – the only thing that separates you (the audience of wannabes) from published authors is that you won’t give up, which means you will be honing your craft and eventually gaining the attention of editors. All that the quitters do is open up the field for you. OK, I was in it for the long haul.

Eventually, I sent my first novel to a print on demand publisher because the big name publishers didn’t snap it right up and, well, I didn’t know any better. It was fun to have a book in hand, assuming you could pay $20 for a rather shoddily made paperback (at least the cover is cool). And it was fun to tell people you’d written a book, except they’d never heard of it and neither had their bookstore. It did not feel like the pinnacle of success.

I slogged on. More courses, more workshops, more conferences, more practice. And a very supportive husband. Finally, I sold a novel to a publishing house you’ve actually heard of! Except it merged with another publishing house, my manuscript went to a different editor and, in the end, did not get published.

More slogging. More pep talks. More years of form rejections, and then handwritten notes on the form rejections, then nice notes directly from the editor until . . . I had several editors interested in my young adult novel, Quaking, which was eventually purchased by an imprint of Penguin. The editor? Serendipitously, it was that very same editor who kept me from quitting about 5 years before, Patricia Lee Gauch.

After getting to know one another, she asked what else I was working on. That’s how Mockingbird came to be acquired and published.

If this sounds like a lovely fairy tale, remember the slogging part, which went on for years (ten!) before Quaking was published. To borrow a line from a favorite film, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!”

Oh, and that manuscript that was sold but never published? It’s not dead. In fact, it’s being resurrected right now and, while it keeps the characters and feel, there’s a momentous transformation happening on the screen in front of me. How fitting that one of its many possible titles included the word Phoenix.

And that’s what we all are. Phoenixes. We have those days that we just want to give it all up or, at least, burn that manuscript. But we rise up. And so does that manuscript. (Come on, I know those characters talk to you even when you’re trying to ignore them!) We can’t help it because being a writer is something we have to do. It’s part of our spirit. We can’t not do it, even if we haven’t been published (yet). It’s who we are.

So, go ahead. Be yourself. Write!

Want to learn more about Kathryn Erskine and her novels? Visit her online.

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