Reading gives us a place to be quiet in a world that doesn’t give us a place for that.
— John Green
For years I’ve off and on kept records of my writing time (most especially while I’m on deadline). More recently I’ve kept a monthly chart in my bullet journal. I’ve used the charts to keep track of word count while drafting, and when in revision or research mode, I’ve used them to simply list which project I was working on which day. With a non-traditional job and a schedule set largely on my own, they’ve been a handy way to see how my work life runs from day to day.
Last spring, I read Laura Purdie Salas’s book, Making a Living Writing Books for Kids. In it she talked about tracking her work time to see where it goes, to determine if a project is monetarily worth her efforts, and to remember to set aside time for her “love projects,” as she calls them — projects that aren’t assigned (like a work-for-hire book) but those she pursues by choice. Laura said she used a simple time tracker called Slim Timer. I promptly checked it out. There are probably websites and apps that are fancier, but this one suits me fine. For the last year, on top of my bullet journal chart, I’ve been pretty darn faithful about clicking into Slim Timer before settling down to draft or edit or prepare for a school visit. It’s been interesting to watch how the numbers have fallen.
I recorded seven months and almost 319 hours on drafting my novel, Miraculous. (Unfortunately I don’t know what I time I put in before mid-April). August clocked in as my busiest Miraculous month, with over 83 hours.
In September — my busiest month of the year — I juggled two deadlines. Miraculous got over 48 hours as I finished my draft, worked through critique partner feedback, and prepared the manuscript for my editor. My picture book, A Race Around the World, got over 46 hours, as my editor and I worked through multiple revisions. This is a reminder that while a picture book is certainly shorter and overall is quicker to write, word for word, a picture book is much more time intensive.
I put in over 44 hours doing events and other presentations, one hour less than the amount of time I put toward my critiquing service.
I spent over five hours on a poem that ultimately sold for $100 and less than an hour revising an old poem that brought me $50. On a whim, I spent fifteen minutes cleaning up a blog post that had gotten a lot of hits and sent it to Writer’s Digest. It sold for $275.
I put in more time on my blog than I needed (though I don’t know specifics. Last year I classified my blogging time as “promotion” — a catch all that didn’t leave me with a lot of information to analyze later. This year the blog has its own category.) I devoted too much time to a project that would have been more fulfilling had I spent it elsewhere. I found a way to be more efficient with a third commitment (not a book — those are never efficient! But I’ve learned no writing effort is ever wasted).
This year I see most of my time has gone to research for a new project, followed by revision work with my editors. A few days ago I was convinced I haven’t done much of anything lately, but looking back at my numbers I could see otherwise. I might not have much to show for my work at present, but I’m making progress, day by day.
With a job where I largely set my own pace and schedule, this information reminds me I am moving forward. I will see projects reach their end if I am faithful showing up.
I want kids to know they matter now, not at some later time when they’re grown. I want them to know they are seen and heard, that their feelings and experiences matter.
Some grownups have said I write about unsavory things, things better not mentioned in books for children— you know, like real life and real situations and the real choices real people sometimes make. But kids are smarter than grownups. They get that fiction is one of the world’s best means to speak truth. And any truth that I write will always make way for hope.
Frederick Buechner said what I hope my writing most conveys: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
age range: 8-12 years
genre: fractured fairy tale
Temre Beltz’s website
Charming and darkly funny, this debut has definite shades of Roald Dahl—it’s a natural successor to Matilda and The Witches. Middle-grade readers who like their fairy tales playing against the rules and their adventure stories with a dash of humor will gobble this up.
I absolutely ADORED Birdie’s story from beginning to end. The most charming book, footnotes and all!
— Liesl Shurtliff, New York Times bestselling author of Rump
Dragons, witches, and resourceful orphans? Magic, adventure, and friendship? There is so much to love about Birdie’s tragical tale!
— Jessica Day George, New York Times bestselling author of the Tuesdays at the Castle series
Please tell us about your book.
In the fairy tale kingdom of Wanderly, everyone has a role. Birdie Bloom is a Tragical—an orphan doomed to an unhappy ending. She spends her days locked away at Foulweather’s Home for the Tragical where her school lessons consist of nothing more than learning how to accept her tragic fate.
Agnes Prunella Crunch, on the other hand, is a witch. The wicked kind.
In Wanderly, a meeting between a wicked witch and a Tragical is only supposed to end one way: tragically. But lately, Birdie and Agnes have both been searching for something more. And with the help of some magical Winds, a series of wayward letters, and the discovery of a very unusual Book, they might just find the kingdom’s unlikeliest friendship, and together, rewrite their story for good.
What inspired you to write this story?
My childhood was shaped by reading. As long as I had a book with me, I was completely content. I loved (and still do!) the weight of the book in my hands, the sound of the pages turning, and that feeling of gently shutting the cover on yet another grand adventure that has now settled into my heart. Some of my favorite stories to read have always been fairytales. I love being able to dive into a shorter story, to feel quickly at home in the world because many of the roles and themes are reoccurring, and then to be able to see how some of the illustrated principles play out in the world around us and how those threads—some obviously, some subtly—are deftly woven in to other beloved classic and contemporary stories. Fairytales, it seems, are everywhere. In trying to make sense of our world through fairytales, I began to consider what might happen if the reverse were true. And it is this flip in perspective that inspired the kingdom of Wanderly.
In an effort to maintain a “storybook” kingdom, the Chancellor of Wanderly has forced each citizen into a role. These roles range from Triumphants (those guaranteed a happy ending) to Tragicals (those doomed to an unhappy ending) and everything in between, including: fairy godmothers, wizards, magicians, witches and commoners. Chancellor-authorized storybooks are exclusively circulated as examples of what each role looks like, and, “for the good of the kingdom,” citizens are not allowed to stray from their roles. What the Chancellor has failed to understand, however, is that stories were never meant to bind us, but to help us make sense of the larger, grander story—life—that is unfolding dynamically all around. And that story, as demonstrated by the Winds of Wanderly, cannot be silenced; it will continue to work in, through, and around the citizens of Wanderly, despite the Chancellor’s best efforts to the contrary, which makes for some very unexpected, and delightful, twists.
On a funnier note, while trying out for a part in my fourth grade school play, my very shy, quiet self was somewhat horrified to be cast as the wicked witch! I was reassured that she was a main part and that it really was an honor, but, try as I might, I just couldn’t get over the wicked part. I did find the courage to play her, and I tried to bring my best self to the role, but ever since I have had a soft spot for storybook witches. Primarily, are they all glad to be cast in such a role? What if some of them would prefer to be written about differently? Or, what if some of them haven’t even considered the possibility that they could be different? It was this tension between who others think we are—and sometimes even who we think we are—as compared to what we want to or could be that I very much wanted to explore.
In writing a fantasy novel for children, how do you tend to approach world-building, and are there any specific techniques that you find helpful?
The work that I have done on BIRDIE has been more fun and more challenging than I ever imagined—primarily because, when I first began writing Birdie’s story, it was not intended to be a fantasy. The book truly is what it has become today because my agent (who I adore!) Molly O’Neill very gently pointed out to me that some of the things which occurred in Birdie’s story don’t happen in real life. I suppose the line between fiction and reality does tend to get blurry for us writers, but I had taken it to a whole new level! When Molly suggested grounding the story in the storybook world I referenced for the wicked witch—Agnes Prunella Crunch—it made my heart thump. It sounded perfect, but also terrifying, though I am now beginning to learn that every story, regardless of the genre, always feels at least a little bit terrifying at the start.
One book that my agent recommended early on, The Imaginary World Of… by Keri Smith, jumpstarted my thinking in just the right direction. It helped me begin to think of Wanderly as a three-dimensional, fully-realized world, and I began to understand that all of the thinking I do off of the page (such as side stories, histories, money systems, holidays, and traditions) will still inform the writing and help make the world feel more real to the reader. As a writer this continues to be an important step for me: to give myself permission to day dream, and to recognize that some of the most real and important work of writing does not always translate to words on the page. The best stories are really just the tip of the iceberg of all the hard and necessary work that no one will ever actually see.
Something else that both my agent and my editor at HarperCollins, the wonderful Stephanie Stein, taught me is that there really is nothing so far-reaching, so out of this world, so unbelievable that a reader isn’t willing to accept in a story, so long as it finds its place in a logical magical system. In short, as long as we as writers create for our fantasy worlds a set of “rules” that can be counted upon, that can be used to make predictions, and that do not fluctuate at the whim of the writer or merely to serve the story, then the possibilities are boundless. I like to think of it as organized freedom.
The last, and probably the most important, thing I have learned is that I still have much to learn! But that is part of the journey of being a writer, giving our very best while still leaving room for what the books we have yet to read, and the stories we have yet to write, will teach us. It seems the books make the writer as much as the writer makes the books.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
I hope that students would enjoy considering Birdie’s story among other classic fairytales. It might be fun to try rewriting some of the classic stories from one specific character’s angle in order to examine what aspects that character likes or dislikes about their given role. This would not only get students thinking about other points of view, how roles inform the way we understand stories, and to what degree storybook roles may or may not be helpful, but it can also let students stretch their creative writing muscles. Some of my favorite classroom activities as a student were trying on the “voice” of another writer with a distinctive style or by allowing myself to write “in character.”
One of the other aspects that I most enjoyed in writing BIRDIE was creating the letters that went back and forth between Birdie and Agnes. There is something very special about getting to know another person through the words that we choose to write and the things that we choose to write about. In a world where we are constantly being pressured to make decisions at lightning speed, it can be tempting, and disheartening, to think we might “know” someone without even exchanging a word. A fun classroom challenge could involve pairing students together so that they can write a letter to one another or to have students write a letter to a neighbor, relative, or someone else of their choosing. As Agnes learned, all it takes is one simple “Hello” to build a bridge and to spark a “magic” powerful enough to change even an entire kingdom.
. . . Even if I can’t stop doubting myself, I can remind myself that art is subjective, not objective, and that just because some people don’t like what I write doesn’t mean it’s not good. I can try to focus less on whether my work is “good” or “bad” and more on finding the audience for it. And I can remember that even if that’s only an audience of one, that’s one person who wants to see it out there. So I need to make sure it is.
— Andi Newton