Emerald Coast Writers put on their 2011 conference last weekend, a chance for writers to clean up our acts—and facts. Writing is all about cleaning. We clean up our mistakes, grammar and punctuation. We clean up our style to make it interesting and easy to understand. We clean up our schedules to make time to write. We clean up our facts so we won’t get sued. Vincent O’Neal even taught us to clean up our acting—using acting techniques to make our writing on the page reach out and grab the reader like actors do. There’s almost no end of cleaning before we can sell and publish our work. And then, of course, we hope to really clean up by publishing a best seller.
I loved conference, even if a few things didn’t go as planned—minor glitches due to unforeseen circumstances. For example, only one of the 7th graders I’m working with at a local middle school turned in an entry for the student writing contest. The students didn’t have time to write in class because of FCAT studies. But no problem at conference got so messy as to make me regret paying to attend. Quite the opposite. The organizers responded with nimble reflexes and quick thinking to straighten things out. Lee Thomas and Joyce Holland put their hearts and souls into conference, along with many other volunteers. Kudos! As a result of their hard work, I am so excited I can hardly contain myself—even though I made a mess of my own plans.
I clean forgot to ask Betsy Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey, to read a page or two of my work to give her more incentive to refer me to the middle-grade editor in another department within Random House, a huge publishing house. I did remember to ask Michelle Richter of St. Martin’s Press, and she said, “This looks pretty good.” She asked me to email her, which I will in a few days. I want to give her time to breathe after she gets back to New York. I had given Dianne Hamilton of On Stage Publishing my first chapter before my appointment. But I was so engrossed in suggestions she made, I forgot to ask if she would be interested in seeing more. There’s another mess I have to clean up later.
The chance to have other writers—great writers—critique my work was the best thing about conference. I had just written a new opening for my book, one meant to hook reluctant readers better than the original, because one seventh grader, a female, mentioned my book’s opening didn’t hook her in as well as it could have. She suggested a back-flash. I didn’t do that before because of word count limitations, but after dividing my book last summer, I had room. So I wrote the new opening scene and brought it to conference for expert critiques. Am I glad I did? YES! And we’re not supposed to yell.
Kathy Carmichael helped me get into a closer point of view and wanted the emotional hook right at the beginning. I knew from previous tries that most men prefer action over emotion, so I asked Vincent O’Neal and Victor DiGenti their opinions too. I got Vinnie’s that afternoon, went home Friday evening and rewrote my first section, marrying the male and female suggestions. A good marriage is all about compromise. The result was much more compelling than either male or female version alone.
Saturday morning, I got Victor’s, Dianne Hamilton’s, and Benjamin LeRoy’s critiques and blended those in. Benjamin seemed surprised I actually liked getting criticism. But how else am I going to perfect my writing? Dianne is such a great editor; she set my brain on fire. She caught inconsistencies with teenage behavior I had passed right over. I’ve only been working with seventh graders since January, not long enough to catch every nuance. I memorized a few of her suggestions so fast I included them in an afternoon reading of my first page in Joyce Holland’s workshop. The workshop attendees really liked that opening and Joyce said my writing has improved a lot in the three years since she last read it. Then I really messed up by failing to mention that although a seventh grader inspired me to write that new opening, it was Kathy, Dianne, Benjamin, Vincent and Victor who helped me clean it up. So I am now giving credit where credit is overdue.
Please forgive me for being so excited about the seventh grader who inspired that section and others who helped me clean up the rest of my book that I forgot to mention the adults who did the final polishing. I hope I can return the favor someday. But if not, I will continue helping the students get story ideas, develop them, write them, and then clean up their own work. Emerald Coast Writers agreed to sponsor a student writing contest for these seventh grade students. Although it is delayed because of FCAT preparation, the wonderful reading teacher said she’ll give the students time to write during class afterward. I would mention her name if not for privacy concerns. Without written consent, the students have to remain anonymous, but the winning entries will be announced before school ends. I hope they clean up!