May the road rise to meet you, and the wind be always at your back.
Tomfoolery. It’s a word I love, and the title of the middle-grade novel that I’m revising and preparing to send back to my agent, Linda Camacho.
Tomfoolery just received a runner-up honor in the Cape Cod Writers Center annual writing contest– a delightful confirmation that I am on the right track, something all writers need at one time or another. I feel the wind at my back, even as I acknowledge that in the writing and publishing world, the road can be rocky for writers and it does not always rise to meet us!
My main character is eleven-year-old Tom Foley, who lives on Cape Cod and dreams of being a famous window dresser like Simon Doonan. When he defies his grandmother’s wishes and sneaks off to a semester of Saturday art classes in Provincetown, his artistic skills blossom, but he realizes he needs the support of his friends and family to be truly happy.
Tom, a bit of a late bloomer (a topic I blogged about recently), frequently gets teased for being gay– but he’s not quite sure of his identity yet. He fits into that “questioning” category, like many middle-schoolers who question just about anything.
Thank you, Cape Cod Writers Center, for the vote of confidence!
I used the October conference as a deadline. I was determined that my manuscript, my middle-grade novel Tomfoolery, would be ready by the conference date. This was highly motivating. I worked towards this goal all summer and early fall, getting critiques, revising, polishing.
I studied the list of mentors, and the difference between editor, assistant editor, and editorial assistant. From researching all of the mentors on Twitter, Publishers Marketplace, and more, I realized how quickly things change—many of them had been promoted since the mentors list had been posted by RUCCL. I got a sense of their tastes and interests, and tuned in to the buzz about new books in a different way.
From all that studying, I learned about the various publishing houses in a deeper way… which imprints were in which houses; who the editors and assistants were; who published books I loved. It gave me a better grasp of the big picture. I also learned more about the various agents, what they were looking for and who their clients were.
After reading several interviews with and blog postings about/by certain editors and agents, I honed the list of people I would most like to meet. I got to meet two people out of my top ten! Unless you want to tackle someone while they’re eating a sandwich, that part is a bit challenging. I wished I had included photos (Google images!) in my research of the people I most wanted to meet, so that I could spot them in the crowd at lunch and during mingling.
I memorized my “pitch,” something that I did not feel confident with. I wanted to be able to smoothly say what Tomfoolery was about, and I worked at it. It genuinely helped in many conversations, and it didn’t feel fake. It kicked in when I met the editor I most wanted to talk to after lunch, and she asked to see my full manuscript!
I prepared for a meeting with my mentor by having a lot of different options for discussion. I knew I would have 45 minutes with my mentor, and I didn’t know if it would be an author, agent, editor, or someone else. You don’t find that out until you arrive at the conference and pick up your folder. I wanted to make the most of this time.
Here’s what I brought:
The five pages I had submitted to Rutgers, which my mentor would be commenting on
My query letter
A list of agents I was considering querying, in case I met with an editor/author
A list of possible next projects I could potentially work on after Tomfoolery
Here’s the twist: I was paired with a lively and friendly mentor, an agent named Carrie Pestritto from the Prospect Agency. The catch? I’d met the previous year with another agent from Prospect, Linda Camacho, who gave me feedback on the MG time-travel novel I was working on, and encouraged me to move forward with Tomfoolery. I knew I was going to send Tomfoolery to Linda, so I would not be submitting to another agent in the same agency. But I used my time well. I explained all that to Carrie. We talked about my five pages, she gave me feedback on my query, and we had time to talk about my possible next projects in light of the market. It was energizing and helpful.
I went with a friend, and we pumped each other up and solidified our writing friendship. We had dinner afterward, hashed out all the information we gained, shared insights, and strategized about next steps. We followed that up with e-mailing each other in the weeks after, about querying and more. We kept each other accountable and we tried to keep the Rutgers energy going.
Within two weeks of attending the One-on-One Plus conference, I was ready to begin querying agents. Two weeks later, I accepted an offer of representation from Linda Camacho of the Prospect Agency. Did that directly result from my interactions at Rutgers? No, not exactly. But the conference – the preparation, the experience of it (adrenalin!), the gust of energy I left with—was a catalyst. It was invaluable in helping me to solidify my writing goals, my current work in progress, and my skills in networking and presenting my work. It made me READY.
If you’re ready to pitch and present your work, to begin querying, I can’t think of a better opportunity than the Rutgers Conference. It’s on again next October, and I believe the application deadline is in June. Be on the watch for it—it’s a great experience!
As a teacher on summer hiatus, I’m grabbing all of the free hours I can muster, running as far and fast as I can with my middle-grade novel-in-progress, Tomfoolery. And the other day, the stars aligned to tell me, “Yes! Keep going. You are moving in the right direction!”
You see, my main character Tom’s world is being rocked by taking part in an art class in beautiful Provincetown. Suddenly, as a gay/questioning, artsy kid, he doesn’t feel so alone– he has found his people.
I wrote a scene the other day in which the art teacher referenced ballerina Misty Copeland. In response to someone using the term “firebird,” the teacher shows an image of Copeland leaping mid-air in flaming red regalia. I wrote some dialog from the teacher:
“Misty Copeland,” Will pointed. “African American soloist with the American Ballet Theater. Most famous role: Stravinsky’s Firebird.”
Finished with my writing time, I clicked on over to Facebook for some social interaction, and there on the headlines was Misty Copeland: newly-named as the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. I immediately went back to my manuscript and made that change!
In the middle of my novel, where my gay/questioning character feels a bit at sea, a bit too “different,” I had introduced an example of another artist who has also had experiences of feeling at sea, and different. And then, there she was, like a Firebird, soaring. Inspiring my character, inspiring me.
The stars aligned, in a little way– but it was enough for me. To keep me going, when I feel a bit at sea in the writing process.
Middle-grade writers will want to study the clip of Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys.” It captures an emergence, a turning point, a discovery, that is found in all rich middle-grade novels. That’s why I used the clip in a recent workshop I presented, Developing Gay and Questioning Characters in Middle Grade Fiction.
In an interview in Variety, composer Jeanine Tesori said, “This is a song… that is a turning moment, when you think you’re an alien and you hear someone else say, ‘Oh, me too.’ It’s a game changer for Alison. And that’s just Musical Theater 101.”
In her Tony acceptance speech, Tesori said the song “…is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because for girls, you have to see it to be it.”
You have to see it to be it.
Those are words to remember for anyone writing for children and teens (boys and girls!). Let’s continue to give our readers a multitude of moments, of discoveries, of ways of being– so that they can fully inhabit their world and more clearly see their place in it.