NOTE: This post first appeared on the MacTeenBooks website.
Five years ago I finished a rough draft of what would become my first young adult novel. A story about a teen obit writer who learns about life and love during a summer spent writing about death. As I worked on polishing and revising my manuscript, I also began the daunting process of querying editors and agents. My daughter, who was in first grade at the time, was curious about what exactly I was doing all day while she was at school. (I think she was looking for material to share at morning meeting.) Luckily, I found the perfect book to explain it to her. AUTHOR A TRUE STORY by Helen Lester. (Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1997.)
After reading that marvelous book to her before bed one night, she said in her infinite six-year-old wisdom. “Mommy, even if no one buys your book, you’re still an author.” My eyes got teary and I gave her a big squishy hug. She was right, of course. And I was so proud of her for recognizing that there’s value in creating something, even if it is 60,000 words no one will ever see.
Still, I didn’t feel much like an author.
That feeling didn’t change as the manuscript went out, and the rejections came back. I tried to ignore that inner voice that said I’d never become an author and instead listen to what my grade-school guru had told me. It didn’t matter. I wrote a book. That, in and of itself, was an accomplishment. Then one day I got an email that helped keep my doubts at bay. The subject line said: Re: Slush for you (from the Rutgers conference.) After attending the Rutgers University Conference on Children’s Literature, I had queried Levine Greenberg, Inc. seeking representation and my e-mail was forwarded to Kerry Evans, who became both my rock star agent and “Sparks.”
A few months after signing with Kerry, three years ago yesterday in fact, I got that life-changing call. I was out at the mall trying to distract myself from obsessively checking my email and phone as I waited to hear from the editors who were reading my manuscript. “We have a deal,” Kerry said when I answered my cell. It was a moment I’ll never forget. I wanted to jump up and down and high five strangers, but I couldn’t because a. I’m totally shy and b. I was standing in front of Mega Movies holding this.
Uh, yeah. I didn’t feel very much like an author.
This past fall, after dropping my daughter off at school, the crossing guard asked me what I had planned for the day. At the time, I was working on edits for two young adult novels—FAMOUS LAST WORDS and HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES (Simon Pulse, May 2013). (I’ve been lucky enough to sell another manuscript since that day at the mall!) I had also begun working on a third novel. Did I tell her any of that? Nope.
I shrugged my shoulders and said. “You know, cleaning the house, walking the dog…” I still wasn’t ready to share with people what it is I do.
Then, in January, I got my first glimpse of what would become the cover of FAMOUS LAST WORDS. The cover was officially revealed in February.
My first reaction was, “That’s Sam!” She’s the seventeen-year-old main character I’ve been living with inside my head for about a decade now. The cover felt so right for my story. It just fit. I loved the colors, the cartoon-like details, the reading line. Finally, the manuscript I’ve been working on for years looked like a real book! And when my eyes panned to the bottom and I saw my name, I began to feel like a real author. In fact, the next time the crossing guard asks, that’s exactly what I’ll tell her.