Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Debut Novel!


Set off the fireworks! My debut novel, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL, will be edited by Stephen Roxburgh and published by namelos!

THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL had a long and winding road from initial idea to contract. It started when my son's eighth grade history teacher at Tampa Prep gave the class an assignment. Mr. Fowler asked the kids to interview family members and record ten family stories. Each story had to take place during a different decade, and the kids had to research what was happening in the U.S. during that time period, and also in the larger world.

One of the stories my son collected called to me. It was the story of Crawley Hennings Wooten, my grandmother's sister. Crawley died when she was 20 years old from tuberculosis. She left behind a ten-month-old baby and a letter planning her own funeral. My grandmother, who was 14 at the time, stepped up and became the baby's mother until his father later remarried. Since my son was 14 at the time of the history assignment, I couldn't help but think about the level of responsibility that had been thrust upon my grandmother as a young girl.

Because nobody is still alive that remembers exactly what happened, I let my imagination run free. I read NC history books, novels set in the 1920's, and memoirs from sanatoriums. I made up characters and asked a lot of "what if" questions. In the final analysis, I used some actual place names like Flint Hill Road, Stony Knoll Church, and Frank Meyers's store, but the rest took place only in my mind.

After writing about 100 pages of JESSIE, I submitted the first chapter for critique at the Florida SCBWI Miami Conference. I was lucky enough to be critiqued by Newbery-winning author, Richard Peck. Mr. Peck asked me to walk him through the rest of the plot. His eyes twinkled and he said in that droll way of his, "You have too many characters auditioning for a part in your novel." I killed some of them off and that made writing the rest of the book much easier.

Author, Joyce Sweeney encouraged me, offered advice, and served as my mentor. My critique partners cheered me on.

Once the novel was complete, I signed with a literary agent. She subbed my manuscript to a small group of editors with no success. Here's a sample of the comments she received:

Henry Holt: "We have a novel forthcoming that has similar themes, in which a girl is rehabilitating at a TB sanatorium (Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles), so the timing isn't right on our end."

Dial BFYR: "My concern is that this is straightforward historical fiction which is just a really tough sell in the market right now."

I became convinced that the novel was good, but not quite good enough. So I signed up for Stephen Roxburgh's Whole Novel Workshop through the Highlights Foundation. Stephen, an experienced editor with more than 30 years in publishing, read my novel in its entirety. In addition, I had three one-on-one sessions with him to discuss it.

Stephen kept working with me in the months that followed. I revised twice more per his comments. In February of 2012, he finally made an offer. I yelled...I screamed...I danced around my kitchen and ran like a crazy woman from room to room!

For every unpublished novelist, there has to be somebody who will open the publishing door and let us in. I will be forever grateful to Stephen for taking that chance on me.

34 comments:

  1. A story of persistence and inspiration - thanks for sharing. And most of all, congratulations! When will the book be coming out?

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  2. That is so exciting and touching too! I love hearing writers' journeys to publication.

    I'm trying to locate your story. Dobson, NC, Or Alexander County? Yadkinville, maybe? Just really curious.

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  3. Hi Joyce, East Bend, North Carolina. My hometown.

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  4. Congratulations! Your persistence paid off. I can't wait to read the book. My husband had 2 uncles who died young of TB. It was a vicious killer in its heyday.

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  5. Thanks, Kathy. I am convinced that persistence is at least half the battle. My grandmother had two sisters. One died from tuberculosis and the other went away to a sanatorium. The one who went away survived.

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  6. so happy for you Shannon! I know how hard you worked. You deserve the good news! Jeannine

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  7. Thanks, Jeannine! I did work hard. It's a good thing I didn't know how difficult it is to land a publishing contract when I started this journey or I would have probably given up years ago!

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  8. This is such an amazing story line. It is a reality of that time period in the Carolinas. Few around the country actually realize the amazing devotion of the Southern family. Your grandmother is a great example and I'm thrilled you told the story. Congratulations Shannon!

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  9. Thanks for sharing, Shannon. I love hearing about other writers' journeys! Definitely a looooong road for most of us!

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  10. Dorothy Gilbert GoldstoneMarch 16, 2012 at 6:05 AM

    Dear Shannon -- Telling it like it is! A true writer's tale (actually one of the shorter ones...no thirteen unpublished novels later in this one...) This is a great validation of your own internal instinct of what "works" -- not only the initial incident, but then all the bits and pieces which attach themselves to that first "aha" -- sort of like building a coral reef....I think the take away for young people learning to write (and any age folks too) is the concept of re-visioning is a moment of possibility. Most of us who teach writing to kids know how hard it is to help writers move towards accepting the revision step -- you seem to be someone who could really be a model. So excited for you Shannon. Dorothy

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  11. Mandy, I am from a large Southern family. My father was one of six kids and my mom one of seven. I have LOADS of cousins. Being part of such an extended clan heavily influences the stories I write.

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  12. Thanks, Jody, and I look forward to hearing good news about your book...SOON!

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  13. Hi Dorothy,

    This was my second novel. Numbers one and three are still in the file cabinet! Number three needs an overhaul, but that's another story.

    As for revisions, I love them. The hard part for me is getting that first draft. Once I have a draft to work with, I adore the process of making it better and better.

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  14. Hooray for your talent, persistance, and mentors!

    Hooray for your book deal!

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  15. Thanks, Debby. Every mentor that stepped up to the plate made the book better. It took a small village to move from first draft to polished manuscript.

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  16. Cheers, Shannon! My applause for all you've done, and most of all, for KNOWING your book was good. It starts there.

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  17. What a great story! Thanks for sharing it!

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  18. Thanks, Mirka and Katy. I did KNOW deep down that my book deserved to be published, but since it's not especially commercial, finding the right editor was a challenge!

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  19. Shannon,

    I'm so happy for you. I know how long you have waited for this. I can't wait to read it, it sounds fascinating.

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  20. Shannon,
    Wonderful news. I can feel your emotion when you write about the novel (and the work it took to get to this step)

    CHEERS!!

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  21. Thanks, Karen. You do know because you were around for the start of my writing journey. And Angela, yes I am totally emotional about the inspiration for this story and about finding a home for it. I hope to publish many other books, but I will never love any of them more than JESSIE.

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  22. Wow, what a great story, Shannon! Thanks for sharing it with us. And a huge CONGRATULATIONS to you =D

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  23. Thanks, I am feeling very fortunate to have this opportunity. Now to survive the editing process!

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  24. Congratulations, Shannon! How did you meet with Mr. Peck and not faint?! I read your cardio post as well. So thankful your son was home to get you to the doctor. He sounds like quite a guy. J And I'm sorry, too, for your losses. Cannot imagine yet look at you, by God's grace, you've survived. Take care and God bless.

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  25. Hi Kristin, I was so nervous before meeting Richard Peck that I started to sweat, but he was so nice and funny that he put me at ease. Still, when it was over, I had to take a shower before I could attend the conference dinner.

    I appreciate your sympathy. My mom always says, "Not many people get out of this life without experiencing a lot of heartache. You just hope that in the end the good days outweigh the bad."

    My son is pretty spectacular...most days!

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  26. So exciting! I can't wait to see Jessie in book form and out in the world. Congratulations!

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  27. What a fantastic story! I love hearing the full stories how stories come into the world. Yay! And congrats!

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  28. I'm glad you persevered. Thanks for sharing your publishing journey and I'm so happy for you. Congratulations!

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  29. Hi Christina, I love hearing the "story behind the story" of other authors too. It's always fascinating how every book has a unique path.

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  30. Hi Medeia, I enjoyed your speech on the debut author's panel in Miami. I can't wait until it's my turn to talk about my book!

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  31. Hi, Shannon! I am SO excited for you! All your hard work paid off! Yay! Keep up the good work!

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  32. Thanks, Lauren! I can't wait to hold my book in my own two hands. Until then it feels more like a dream.

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