Finding Success Through The Miami SCBWI Conference
I didn’t find either my agent or my editor through SCBWI, yet it was through the contacts I made at the Miami conference that I learned to craft a novel. My novel writing journey started in 2009 at the “First Books Panel.” I listened as Marjetta Geerling, Debbie Reed Fischer, and Danette Haworth shared their paths to publication. One thing each of them had in common was this phrase, “I’d like to thank Joyce Sweeney.” I jotted her name down in my notebook and made it my mission to find this fairy godmother.
I discovered that Joyce is a talented teacher and mentor who has helped many authors land their first publishing contract. Later that evening, I introduced myself to her, and Joyce agreed to critique my middle grade novel. While that manuscript is still in my file drawer, the lessons I learned while crafting it stood me in good stead while writing my second book, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL.
In 2010, I journeyed back to the Miami conference. By this time I had written about 50 pages of JESSIE, and the first chapter was slated for critique with Newbery award winning author, Richard Peck.
THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL is set in the 1920s. Mr. Peck’s written critique says, “Moreover, your subject matter is my own favorite: rustic nostalgia (with an edge) to reveal a little history to a generation not learning any at school.”
Since Mr. Peck had read only the first ten pages, he asked me to walk him through the rest of the plot. At that time, my novel had both a midwife and a second older woman called Cousin Rachel. Mr. Peck told me those two characters sounded remarkably similar and asked if they could be combined. “Yes!” I said. “Yes, that is absolutely brilliant!” He answered, “You have too many characters auditioning for a part in your novel.”
I confessed that I wasn’t entirely sure how my novel would end and shared two possibilities. Mr. Peck shook his head. “There’s only one way this novel can end,” he said. “Your character has grown and changed during her journey. The ending must reflect that.”
Armed with plotting tips from Richard Peck, I went back home and finished my book. I then took the completed manuscript to a Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop led by Stephen Roxburgh. When Stephen said, “This novel really is delicious and exactly the kind of thing I’m looking to publish,” I knew JESSIE had found a home!
Here’s a sneak peek of THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL:
Sometimes when the kerosene lamp casts shadows, I think I see Ma’s ghost. If she were still alive, she’d say, Jessie Pearl, you keep on studying. Not everybody is cut out to be a farm wife. We’ll find a way to pay for teachers’ college. Leave your Pa to me.
And tonight, Ma would notice how my hands are trembling. I can almost hear her voice. Jessie, fourteen is too young to help birth a baby. Why don’t you go and study in the kitchen? But Ma is just a memory.
It’s 1922, and Jessie has big plans for her future, but that’s before tuberculosis strikes. Though she has no talent for cooking, cleaning, or nursing, Jessie puts her dreams on hold to help her family. She falls in love for the first time ever, and suddenly what she wants is not so simple any more.
Inspired by Shannon Hitchcock’s family history, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL wraps you like an old quilt in the traditions, tastes, and dialect of rural North Carolina.