I am at this tumultuous point in my writing life where my days vacillate between sad departures and happy beginnings. I’m wrapping up final edits before prying my over-protective hands off my newborn YA manuscript, kicking it out of the nest into the big, scary world to fly on its own where it will be rejected, requested only to be rejected some more, requested again, and then hopefully, FINALLY to be adored by just the right person. The more exciting, joyous parts of my days are when I’m moving forward on my next YA manuscript. I think I’m enjoying the beginning of this new manuscript because it is much lighter in subject matter than the last novel. No longer am I trapped in the psych ward with my main character, Sara, struggling through the ugly situations that I put her through. I do love her story, but I’ve lived with it for a very long time and, man, was I brutal. She should never forgive me. With this new novel I get to be funny and explore new things. I’m also I’m dying to try out what I learned while writing the last novel.
First, I want to write my rough draft without constantly editing myself. I’m going to follow some wise advice from a dear writer friend and give myself permission to write a very bad first draft. Although I’m not a big Hemingway fan, I did love this quote I read from him recently that said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Succinct and to the point. (Maybe I will give The Old Man and the Sea another go after all.) I want to have fun with my new manuscript without constantly correcting.
Second, I want to keep a journal of my ideas for changes and questions I have about plot issues or character motivation, etc. I believe I got the idea from Kathi Appelt when she spoke to our Oklahoma SCBWI group last fall. She keeps an ongoing project journal which are conversations with herself about her characters and the choices her characters could make. She writes out where her characters are going mentally and physically, drawing maps to keep directions straight. She turns to her journals whenever she gets stuck while writing to work through the rough spots. I tried something much less organized with notes in the margins of my last book and it wasn’t as easy to reference or to keep track of through all of my edits and it wasn’t remotely conversational. I really like her idea. I have a funky new spiral that will serve this purpose. I must write “hands off!” on the cover so my daughter doesn’t steal it – it is that cool.
Third, I want to handle my stress better. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I’m not going to sabotage myself or stop writing or start doubting that I can do this, I’m just going to take a break and play for a little while. Just play.
My inspiration for this final idea? I found some old pictures of my kids playing a game they made up called Barbie Tossing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Man, were those dolls aerodynamic! This was during a time in our lives when we didn’t have much money, we lived in a cramped apartment while I worked in a very demanding management position that required a lot of travel-time and my husband was still in nursing school, and we were still new to the whole autism diagnosis with our son – juggling all kinds of appointments with specialists and therapists to see what he needed – STRESSFUL! And yet here was this moment when the kids didn’t even notice any of that and just made due with what they had – a bunch of Barbies and a patch of grass right outside the apartment door. They tossed those Barbies for hours. (Finally, a way of playing with them that didn’t make me cringe. I even joined in – yes, I did my fair share of Barbie Tossing, too.) I looked at those pictures and then I remembered how those bright-eyed kids could turn a small corner of our tiny living room into the most fantastical adventure with a blanket and two bar stools and they always, ALWAYS invited me to come along. Once I’m done indulging my need for play, I won’t feel as stressed anymore and all the doubts and worry won’t be able to hold me back.
Darleen Bailey Beard is an active member in our local Oklahoma SCBWI chapter who has published six books including The Babbs Switch Story, Twister, The FlimFlam Man, Operation Clean Sweep, The Pumpkin Man from Piney Creek and her latest book, Annie Glover is not a Tree Lover. Last fall at one of our conferences, Darleen did a fantastic talk on school visits. I was so inspired that I asked Darleen if I could come along and watch her in action some time. She was very encouraging about the idea and this spring we were able to coordinate our schedules. During that fall talk, Darleen said that one thing we as writers could do that teachers couldn’t was get kids excited about writing. After watching her do a school visit, let me tell you, she can also get kids excited about reading.
It’s not an easy thing to hold the attention of a room full of 3rd and 4th graders, especially if you’re a complete stranger, interrupting their day for an hour to talk about books and writing, but Darleen Bailey Beard captivates her audience of readers – voracious and reluctant alike – by reaching out to them at the very beginning. She starts off by telling the kids stories from her own childhood about how she always wanted to find something that she was good at; how all of her friends were great at swimming or great Girl Scouts or being the prettiest, but she was never good at anything. What kid can’t relate to that? She takes them on her own journey of self-discovery through a lens they can understand, just like any great storyteller. The kids are enraptured. She asks them questions, gets them involved, and then tells them a secret about herself that is totally and completely…embarrassing. Do they really want to hear it? YES!!! Oh, she is theirs for LIFE!
I learned so much about how to do a school visit the right way after watching Darleen give her same talk time after time with the same level of
enthusiasm. School visits are not for the weak. Darleen was often surrounded by kids, receiving hug after hug (for being a writer of a book they loved!) and still she found the time to talk to the lingerers who were too shy to speak to her in front of the crowds. One girl barely raising her voice above a whisper told her how much she loved to write, too. Maybe another future author being born. I knew all of this was why I wanted to write. To matter. To make that emotional connection that only written words can facilitate. Now I understand why Darleen has unofficially been crowned Queen of the School Visits. She has earned that title.
Several weeks have passed since that author visit and I asked Darleen if she would answer some interview questions for me. Ever giving of her time to her fellow writers, she agreed.
VL: As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
DBB: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. The first thing that came to my mind was when I threw my sister’s Barbie doll out the car window. We were living in [Pennsylvania] and our way to visit our grandparents in [Oklahoma]. My sister was five years older, five years bigger, and five years smarter than me. She was doing something and I can’t remember what it was but it was bugging me. I held her doll up by the toe and said, “If you don’t stop it, I’m going to throw this doll out the window!” Well, she didn’t believe I had the guts to follow through with my threat, so she kept on doing whatever it was she was doing. So after I’d had enough, I rolled down the car window and thwack! I threw that doll right out the window! Of course, she had to tell on me and my dad didn’t want to stop the car to go back and look for it on the highway, so when we got to [Oklahoma] to visit my relatives, my punishment was that I had to sit on the bed in the back bedroom at my grandparents house while everyone else got to visit and hug and share in the excitement of our arrival! But I have to say, it was worth it! Ha!
VL: Whoa! Guess your sister believed you from then on.
What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?
DBB: This is an easy one–I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer. I fell in love with writing when my fifth-grade teacher would make us write stories with our spelling words every week. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer and have been writing ever since.
VL: Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?
DBB: My role model was my fifth-grade teacher. She made me believe in myself. She was an amazing teacher and did so many creative things in our classroom. She even made a jail cell out of a refrigerator box and put a chair in there and magazines so that if anyone misbehaved in class, they had to go to jail and the only thing there was to do in jail was read…imagine that! She had this amazing bulletin board in the coat closet area where she put current events from the newspaper on it and added to it on a regular basis. She would make us write about these current events and I remember standing in the coat closet just looking and looking at that bulletin board. Somehow just looking at that board made me realize how big the world really was and she made it look so exciting and fun. She made learning and education fun, too, which was something my other teachers had not managed to do (with me, anyway!). She made every single day a day to look forward to in the classroom. She was tall, too, and I really liked that because I was such a tall kid. I was taller than my third-grade teacher and as tall as my fourth-grade teacher, so when I walked into my fifth-grade classroom and saw this six-foot teacher, taller than me, I was thrilled! I loved having a teacher taller than me.
VL: Reading jail! The horror! She sounds like an amazing teacher; no wonder she inspired you so much. I think we can all relate to that one teacher who touched our lives for the better. Teachers ARE heroes.
Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
DBB: My sister and I had bedrooms on the second floor of our house. In the middle of our rooms was a hallway and a bathroom. We always managed to forget to turn off the hall light and we’d each lie in our beds yelling to the other to “Turn out the light!” until one of us would eventually get up and go turn off that light. How scary it was to run back to bed in the dark!
VL: Who was your childhood best friend? Are you still friends today?
DBB: My best friend was Kathy. Kathy would pick her eyelashes out. A strange thing. And she’d eat her own Kleenexes. Another strange thing. But what fun we had playing tricks on the neighborhood kids and riding our bikes to the 7-11. We are still in contact but not much. Being the writer that I am, it’s easy for me to write or call but it’s harder for her as she works at night as a nurse and sleeps in the day. I wish we were still in touch but we haven’t talked in a couple years. I think I’ll go call her now!
VL: Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
DBB: Kathy had this wonderful beautiful cherry tree in her backyard. We would play Barbies under this tree. It had tons of cherries and it was such fun to eat the cherries. One cherry would make an entire meal for our Barbies. We also played in my game closet in my bedroom. It was this small closet which my dad had built–around 4 feet by 4 feet. We’d get in there and play games and eat sugar cubes!
VL: Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
DBB: We lived in a motel for about six weeks. We were moving from [Pennsylvania] to [Arkansas] where my dad had this crazy dream of owning his own chicken ranch. Anyway, we lived in a motel because the van line that was moving our belongings went on strike after it took all our things. So for six weeks we had no furniture, no clothing, no nothing. We didn’t know what else to do, so we ended up living in a motel. We rented two rooms, side by side, with a door that opened between the rooms. And that’s where we stayed. My parents wouldn’t buy me any new clothes (not sure why, but I guess they didn’t have the money??) and so I had to start my 7th grade year with only the few clothes that we took in our car on our move. I think I had a total of three pairs of shorts and three shirts and had to wear these very same clothes for six whole weeks! I also remember wearing a pair of my mother’s shorts which were too big for me and came way down to my knees. Boy was I glad when the van lines stopped their strike and I got my clothes back! During that time I remember being very creative and doing a lot of painting and coloring and jewelry making as there was nothing to do in a motel room except that or watch TV.
VL: I imagine starting a new school year like that in a new state must have been very challenging.
What was the worst job you ever had while going to school? Do you have any interesting stories about working there?
DBB: Going through college, I cleaned houses. I had this one customer, Mrs. Kelly, who would follow me from room to room watching me. She watched my every move. When I cleaned her toilets, she stood over me, making sure I did it right. Then she would make suggestions while I cleaned like, “Use only one paper towel” or “Don’t touch the walls with that paper towel” or “Be sure to get that spot off that dish” or “Dust with only one spray of polish, not two sprays.” She drove me nuts. She didn’t even like it if I moved her furniture to vacuum. She’d get mad if I moved her chair one inch. THEN she started going to her bedroom closet and coming out with different clothes on when I was there. I’d be in the kitchen and she’d come out modeling some new dress and new shoes. I’d be in the living room and she’d come in there with another dress and shoes. She’d twirl around and want me to compliment her. Of course, she was just a lonely, old, obsessive-compulsive lady with a touch of dementia but she drove me nuts. After working for her about one year, I finally quit.
VL: Wow. She would make quite an interesting character in a book some day. She reminds me a little of Annie Glover’s Grandma. I think you lasted at that job much longer than I would have, and I’ve had some pretty crazy jobs myself.
What is your current writing project and what can you tell us about it?
DBB: I’m working on a book called “Princess Dandelion of Valley View Mountain” and it takes place in southeast [Oklahoma] during the Depression in 1931. It’s based on a true story about a girl who lives in the traveling lumber camps that existed in that area until 1963ish. She finds a starving mule and tries to keep it from dying and wants to bring it home. Of course, her parents don’t want a mule or have money to feed a mule so the fun begins. How is she going to convince her parents she needs this mule???? She’s also convinced that she doesn’t need a friend–she’s moved from town to town to town and has lost a lot of friends in her many moves–so she doesn’t want to bother with making another friend in her new lumber camp but the girl who lives next door is determined to be her friend. This, too, causes some fun trouble!
VL: I’m really looking forward to that one. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you better!
I was once like many young girls who worshipped at the alter of Barbie. I coveted the Malibu Dream House; I longed for the Pepto pink convertible to drive around my less attractive friends. I wanted to accessorize my troubles away. And then one day something in me just stopped believing the hype that my self-worth was tied into my appearance and I couldn’t be one of those girls anymore. I don’t know why it happened, but the glitz of Barbie’s world lost its charm; all that sparkly sequins seemed tacky and life started being about swimming against the current…and it has been ever since.
I blame my father.
He always treated me like I had a brain that was useful for more than organizing sock drawers. We would have long talks about everything where my very inexperienced opinion was just as important as anyone’s. He also made me do everything that my brothers had to do; mow the lawn, cut and stack firewood, and wash the dishes. There were no gender-specific chores at our house.
And reading was encouraged.
My dad was and still is a voracious reader. Not surprisingly, I became an unstoppable reader myself. One of my fondest memories as a child was the night my dad started reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis to me. I was so captivated. Not only did I have my dad all to myself, but we were sharing this amazing adventure in Narnia together. If only I’d been patient enough to wait for him to read the rest of the story to me. When he couldn’t read to me the next night, I took off on my own and never looked back until I had devoured the entire series. I re-read those books more than any other throughout my childhood. I even saved up my own lawn-mowing money to buy A Companion to Narnia by Paul Ford printed in 1980 that I still have to this day.
I’m pretty sure that’s when the writing bug sunk its teeth deep into my skin and made itself at home in my soul.
Fast-forward thirty or so years later and it hasn’t let go. Now I’m deep in the process of writing my second book and enjoying (almost) every facet of it. This one may actually be worthy of publishing. We shall see. I’ve learned a few things along my continuing journey to be a children’s writer, mostly from making a slew of mistakes – but isn’t that the most memorable way to do it? This blog is my latest leap into the unknown, trying to push myself further and keep on swimming upstream. I hope you’ll join me.