Are you holding yourself back?
About four years ago, I had a dinner that changed my life. It wasn’t something I anticipated, expected, or could have planned. But it was the moment I realized I was being—for lack of a better term—an idiot.
I was one of the volunteers at my regional SCBWI spring conference. I’d signed up to take pictures of the conference, so that morning I’d seated myself at one of the reserved tables to make sure I had a clear view. Even though I was helping run the thing, I still felt stupid sitting up front. Who was I to sit where others weren’t allowed?
Guest column by Martha Brockenbrough, author of DEVINE INTERVENTION,
a young adult novel Kirkus called “frequently hysterical” and “devastatingly honest”
in a “starred review. It was released in June 2012 from Arthur A. Levine. Martha also
wrote THE DINOSAUR TOOTH FAIRY, which comes out in summer of 2013.
Learn more at marthabrockenbrough.com.
As I sat there, marinating in a self-concocted brine of shame, a faculty member chose a seat near mine. I glanced at his nametag: Arthur Levine, the legendary editor from Scholastic.
As I wished for an invisibility cloak, the speaker at the lectern reminded us to turn off our cell phones. At that very moment, Arthur’s phone rang. He blushed, clapped his hand to his heart, switched off the phone in his jacket pocket, and excused himself.
When he returned a moment later, he whispered that he had a small child at home and could never be out of touch. Because I had a child the same age, I understood completely. But he impressed me on another level. It didn’t matter to Arthur that he was our keynote speaker, the most important man in the room. When his phone rang, he was as embarrassed as I would be.
Later that night, I had the good fortune to be seated across the dinner table from him. And maybe it was the glass of wine at the end of a long day, but I felt at ease enough to crack jokes as we ate. At one point, he said, “You’re hilarious. Why haven’t you submitted to me?”
As the protagonist of my new novel might say, that moment was “epical.” I loved Arthur’s imprint at Scholastic, and not just because of Harry Potter. At the time, he’d published Markus Zusak, Jaclyn Moriarty, Lisa Yee, Roddy Doyle, Shaun Tan—book after book by remarkable authors. What right had I to dream of my own work next to the likes of theirs?
The closest I’d come to submitting to Arthur was stalking the blog of his brilliant senior editor, Cheryl Klein. That was a good move on my part. I learned a great deal from her advice for writers, and hoped someday to query her… maybe.
That night, I went home buzzing with realizations. First, Arthur wasn’t a scary wizard on a mountaintop. He was a friendly, kind man who’d been gracious and patient with the 400-some people who swarmed him at the conference. And second, working with him was a possibility. He’d opened the door that I’d closed on myself for no good reason other than self-doubt.
Afterward, I sent him a thank you note. Then I registered for my first SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles. I knew he’d be there, and I wanted him to remember me as I took the time I needed to write a manuscript that felt worthy.
At that conference, Arthur spoke about the bright spots in the picture book industry. I’d pretty much given up on those, after slaving over them for five years without success. Instead, I’d turned my energy over to writing unpublishable epic novels.
Arthur was so encouraging at that conference that I sent him another thank you note, along with a Spinosaurus tooth for his son, who’d jokingly given aspiring writers this adorable piece of advice: “When in doubt, write about dinosaurs.”
I told Arthur the tooth had been given to me by the dinosaur tooth fairy. Arthur, who is much better at recognizing possibility than I am, suggested I write a picture book called The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy.
I did just that. A year and dozens of revisions later, he bought it—sharing the news with me at another SCBWI event in Los Angeles, where he heard the opening pages of a novel I was working on.
Coincidentally, that was the same retreat where I met my agent, Jill Corcoran. The next year, she sold him that book, too. It’s called DEVINE INTERVENTION, and it comes out June 1. And while Arthur Levine is by all indications human like the rest of us, the title fits the way he transformed my life. Before I met him, I wouldn’t let myself dream that the best things were possible for me. I didn’t dare.
I’ve since realized that doing the work of the writer isn’t enough. Self-doubt is as much of an obstacle as inadequate storytelling. Success is a combination of effort and faith. Get out of your own way on both scores, and the plot twists of your life might surprise you in the best sorts of ways.
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- 4 Keys to Writing Un-Put-Down-Able Middle Grade Novels.
- Young Adult Author Jennifer Bosworth Explains “How I Got My Agent.”
- Agent Jennifer Laughran Shares Advice on Writing Books For Children.
- Why Picture Books Aren’t Just For Kids.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
Writing a novel for children? Literary agent
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