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Monday, April 18, 2011

WRITING STUFF FOR BIG AND LITTLE KIDS: First Sale "Friends Forever, Lisa"

In these articles (about once a month on the third or fourth Monday), I’ll be sharing with you what I’ve learned in the past fifteen years from first trying to get short stories and articles published in the non-adult market to publishing pretty much whenever I submit a short story, article or essay to a non-adult market. I’m going to do this chronologically so that those of you who are beginning your journey can learn what I did as I did. This will also tend to make me more coherent as I cast back to those first days – and I won’t make assumptions about what I did and didn’t know…

Sometimes publication is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I had traveled with a Christian band from June 1977 through August 1978. Our group had grown quite close, but when we were done, we were ready to move on. A pair of our group got married and the wife, after several years of marriage and having kids, decided to start a children’s magazine. She got support from local churches, advertising and a bit of self-funding and put out a few issues of SONSHINE MAGAZINE in 1983.

I had been writing for a number of years but had little to show for it but a story accepted by a “mimeograph and tagboard, three-color cover” called ANTITHESIS. It was my first acceptance, but I’d gotten nothing since then. When Ruth, the editor of the new magazine, shared with me in a letter (this is 1984, remember? It was a PAPER letter…) what she was doing, she asked if I would be interested in writing a story for it.

“Would I?” I leaped on to my IBM Selectric (I was writing on an electric typewriter at the time!)…and stared at the blank sheet of paper.

I’d long planned on becoming a science fiction writer. Everything I’d written up to this point had been SF. I’d been submitting to ANALOG and other magazines since I was old enough to type and had received nothing but pre-printed rejection slips. I had also been a substitute teacher for three years and knew something about kids, though I had none of my own. I knew ABOUT kids, I just didn’t know them real well. Ruth didn’t want science fiction. But as a science teacher, I knew even less about literature than I did about kids.

So I picked a genre I could navigate in, albeit not with any great knowledge: I wrote a mystery about a girl whose best friend had moved away without writing and telling her. She had to figure it out from an abandoned ocean-side cabin at a resort they shared during the summer. She eventually found a note from the friend, Lisa. Did I plan carefully? Nope. Did I draw a map of the beach? Yup. THAT was something I understood. But the whole planning thing was something I didn’t do well.

I had to go back and RE-write the whole story because it was so full of plot holes, it didn’t make sense; and it certainly wasn’t a mystery! I was working against a deadline and I had to be DONE with the story. I tacked on a religious message (SONSHINE MAGAZINE was a Christian magazine) and sent it to Ruth. She sent it back.

What? WHAT!

She asked for some changes – mostly about integrating the message with the story, I laboriously made them, typed the whole thing up again, sent it – and she bought it! Several months later, the magazine showed up at my house and an artist had rendered a drawing based on my words. I was ecstatic and I found I’d learned my first lessons about writing for children: Write what you know and INTEGRATE your message because EVERY kid story has a “message” that should be INVISIBLE to a child’s critical eye. (They are WAY more critical than adults are!)

What I Learned #1: Be ready to go in a direction you’d never considered.

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