David Patneaude, Author of the Month: A Step Forward with Fast Backward

If I were a Great Plains farmer who’d endured a genuine dry spell like the metaphorical one I’ve experienced over the past seven years, I’d be short on wheat, deep in debt, and unwashed. I’d be staring at the sky and into the mirror, wary of locusts and meteorites and plagues. Fortunately, none of that applies to me. Fortunately, I live in a figurative world. And right now, I’m just grateful that that metaphorical drought has almost ended.

I’ve hung in there—and reached (finally!) the end of my own personal water shortage—for lots of reasons: resolve, persistence, stubbornness, pride, the need to exercise my imagination, an addiction to writing, thick-skinned-ness, self-confidence, serendipity, and maybe last but certainly not least, luck. The result: This summer my new YA novel, tentatively titled FAST BACKWARD, will be published by Koehler Books.

I’m excited. Although I’d previously published ten successful books with traditional publishing houses, there were times during that knocking-my-head-against-a-wall period when I wondered if it would happen again. But those attributes or flaws or whatever you might call them (noted above) kept me going. I never considered quitting. I cranked out stories and revised others I’d been working on for years. I now have at least half a dozen that I believe are publishable, and I still hope to get them in front of publishers, and ultimately, readers. They’re YA and middle grade, realistic and fantasy and sci-fi, prose and poetry, contemporary and historical. I might even have a picture book or two in the mix.

I’m particularly proud of FAST BACKWARD, a story I’ve been working on for three years or more. It’s World War II–era, so it required a good deal of research (contrary to some folks’ opinions, I wasn’t around to observe the events as they unfolded), including a fact-finding trip to New Mexico. It also required a lot of thought and what-if-ing and organizing and revision and more revision and more research and a self-enforced ritual of routinely planting my rear end in a chair to get the words I wanted down and in the proper order.

Whenever I get a request to do an online (or in-person) author visit to a school or classroom, it’s because a teacher or her (or his) students (or both) have read one of my books and want to dig deeper into it. They want to get the story behind the story. Where did you get the idea? Why did you make the story end this way? Will there be a sequel? Where did you get the characters’ names? Do you have a favorite character? How long did it take you to write it?

And then the old standbys: What’s your favorite book you wrote? Do you ever put yourself in a story? Have you met any famous (interpretation: real) authors? What is (fill in the name) doing now? (This is one of my favorites because it tells me that for this young reader, that fictitious character has come alive.) Then there’s the kid who believes she or he has come up with a subtle approach to finding out how old I am. It goes something like this: “You told us SOMEONE WAS WATCHING was published in 1993 and that it took you four years to write it and get it published, so how old were you when you started writing it?”

But kids don’t want to know only about me and my books they’ve already read. They want to know what I’m working on now, and what’s it about, and when it will be published. During my “dry spell,” I could tell them what I was working on and what the various stories were about. They’d get excited. They’d ask when that book about the alien creature, or the murder mystery, or the girl who’d gone missing, or the girl with powers, or the other girl with powers, was going to be published. “When can I buy it?” they’d say. “When will it be in our school library?” And I had to tell them I didn’t know. I had to tell them I was trying hard to make it happen, but much of the decision-making process was out of my hands.

Now I’m thrilled to be able to tell them I’ve got a book coming out in six months or less, and even to a kid that doesn’t seem like forever. I can tell them it’s got time travel in it, and war, and atomic bombs, and prejudice, and empathy, and two smart and brave and generous kids who take it on themselves to try to save the world.

I’m looking forward to working through the rest of the editing back-and-forth, and seeing the cover, and launching the book out into the world. And getting questions—fresh ones—from young readers.

—David Patneaude

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Suzanne Williams, Author of the Month: Brief Reflections on a Writing Career, Plus Advice for New Writers

The just-launched MEDEA THE ENCHANTRESS is Book 23 in the popular Goddess Girls series.

Thirty years ago I saw my very first published piece of writing in print. It was an article for an educational magazine with nursery rhyme-based creative writing ideas for kids.

After that first success, I wrote many other magazine articles over a period of a year or two, none of which sold. Eventually I decided to abandon magazine writing and pursue what I really wanted to write — namely children’s books. When I announced this decision to my ever-supportive husband, he said, “Why not? Your articles are being rejected, you might as well write a book.” Believe it not, I am still married to the guy.

Fast forward to today and no one is probably more surprised than I am (except maybe my husband) to find that my list of published books for children has grown to over seventy. Admittedly, more than half of those are books I’ve written in the last eight years with my incredibly talented and hardworking coauthor, Joan Holub, but that’s a topic for another time.

Though there’s always an element of luck involved in selling a book (or a series of books!), I’d like to think I’ve learned some things during the past thirty years that are worth passing on. So here goes…

Advice for New Writers: Five Tips

1. Take the first baby step. Begin by doing ONE thing.

My first one thing was taking a class in writing for children. The structured assignments with feedback from an instructor, plus basic information on how to submit my work, were all extremely helpful, giving me a good scaffold to build on.

2. Keep on taking baby steps.

Why baby steps? Because trying to do too much at once or looking too far ahead can lead to frustration, or worse, make you want to quit before you even get started. Take it one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter, one story, or one writing assignment at a time.

Writing one article a month was another of my small steps when I was first beginning to write. So was the decision to write a book, page by page and chapter by chapter, and then one more book, and another, and another.

3. Surround yourself with resources and connect with other children’s writers. 

Read and analyze books that are like the ones you hope to write. Read books about writing. Become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attend local chapter meetings in your state. Attend a writers’ conference. Join a critique group.

I’ve done all of the above. Besides learning a lot in the process, I’ve become friends with some really wonderful fellow children’s book writers. Joan Holub and I first met at a local SCBWI conference as a matter of fact!

4. Don’t give up.

I’ve cried or raged over some rejections, especially early on in my career. But over the years I’ve learned to develop a thicker skin. As Issac Asimov wrote: “A rejection of a story is not a rejection of the writer. It is no crime to be rejected or even a sin. Editors do not hate a writer when they reject a manuscript and do not therefore plot the writer’s destruction.” Comforting to know, right?

5. Celebrate small victories.

Each baby step is a victory of sorts. Even your first form rejection. Because it means you got up the courage send something out. When you graduate to personal rejections, where editors actually comment on a story while still rejecting it, that’s a victory too. Editors generally won’t take time to write a personal note unless a writer shows promise.

Setting up a regular writing schedule and sticking to it is also a victory. So is completing that first story or article. Celebrate those moments. (In all honesty, I should follow my own advice here more often. Life should be a series of little celebrations, don’t you think?)

Recently, I was interviewed by a blogger who asked me this unusual question: If someone made a movie of your life, would it be a drama, a comedy, action film, science fiction, or other genre of film?

I answered, “a slow-moving documentary, maybe?” Because even though I’ve been writing for thirty years, I am still taking baby steps. With each new book I break down the actions I need to take to finish that book, from gathering ideas to making an outline to writing the first draft, and so on. I chart my daily writing goals (like drafting four to five pages a day, for example) on a calendar, and monitor my progress.

If the above makes me seem a bit like the tortoise in the Aesop’s fable, well, that’s okay with me. I’m a firm believer in “slow and steady wins the race.” Baby steps not only keep me on track with my writing (and in a way that doesn’t overwhelm), they also help me to live a balanced life with time for other activities I value, like reading for pleasure, visiting with family and friends, walking, yoga, and travel.

What baby step will you take today?

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GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment to enter for your chance to win a FREE paperback copy of Goddess Girls: Medea the Enchantress by Suzanne Williams and Joan Holub! Suzanne will hold a drawing and announce the lucky winner January 30.