First-time authors face many challenges in the competitive writing and publishing world. Perseverance is crucial. Today, I am thrilled to introduce a debut middle grade novelist who actively pursued her dream to be traditionally published. Jessica Lawson rode the waves of rejection letters and eventually signed a contract with Simon & Schuster.
Jessica used her creative energies to craft a new image of Becky Thatcher set in a slightly earlier time. While some of the elements of Mark Twain’s notable stories are included, Jessica’s version will certainly appeal to middle level readers who are looking for more spirited female characters.
In exchange for an honest interview and review, Jessica sent me a copy of The Actual & Truthful Adventure of Becky Thatcher. Jessica is participating in a book giveaway. Remember to leave a comment on this blog so that you will be eligible. Winners must live in the United States or Canada.
Prior to starting your first novel, you were employed at a nonprofit foundation, a preschool, a dude ranch, and a US National Forest project. Did any of these jobs influence your desire to start writing? What fueled your passion to write children’s books?
I don’t know that my previous jobs fueled my desire to write, but they allowed me to explore certain loves: spending time in nature, working with children, and discovering both the hope and challenges that exist in the world. And each of those job experiences came with their own set of stories and memories. What really fueled my passion to begin writing seriously was motherhood. When I became a stay-at-home-mom, I found time to pursue a passion that had remained dormant for many years. I wanted to achieve my dream of becoming published so that I could show my children, first-hand, that not giving up in the face of rejection, hard work, passion, and perseverance could allow them to achieve any goal.
Did you enroll in any formal writing classes or degree programs before embarking on your writing career?
No, but I’m a firm believer that you can learn an incredible amount about writing from online resources, critique groups, and, of course, by reading extensively in the genre that you’re working on. The online writing community is huge and extremely supportive. Websites and blog posts on the craft of writing have taught me so much. It’s been such a blessing as a stay-at-home-mom who doesn’t have the time or money to pursue an advanced degree in fiction writing. I’ve also been exposed to wonderful information by becoming a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Conferences are also a wonderful way to learn technique, interact with other writers, and recharge your motivation.
What prompted you to focus your attention on middle level chapter books? Do you have any plans to expand your writing to include other genres or age levels?
My middle grade years (around 8 to 12) were when I really fell in love with stories, so it was natural for me to return to those kinds of stories as a writer. When I first started writing, I dabbled in women’s fiction and young adult fiction, but middle grade is where I found my heart. And now that I have young children, I look forward to introducing them to all of my old favorites as well as new ones. It’s really an exciting time for middle grade literature. At this time, I have no plans to pursue other age levels. As far as genres, I’d love to explore more speculative story ideas at some point.
Writing a companion novel for a famous author’s award-winning books is an audacious decision. The stakes are heightened when you are aligning yourself with Mark Twain, a legendary American writer. What prompted you to tell Becky Thatcher’s story?
I have always been charmed by the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain and, growing up, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were two of my favorite book characters.
One day in 2010 or 2011, while I was pretending to do a thorough dusting job on my bookshelves, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer caught my eye. I hadn’t read it in years and found myself thinking about Tom and Huck and all the adventures they had together. And I thought about Becky Thatcher, the nicely-dressed, finely-coiffed young girl who represented all that was good and pure to Tom—a girl who was distraught at discovering that Tom had been “engaged” to someone else. At Becky’s age, I was more likely to start a game of let’s swipe cookies from the cabinet and make a secret hideaway under the porch than to wear dresses and play at being engaged. Being a tree-climbing, mischief-making, cops-and-robbers-playing kind of girl, I always related more to Tom and Huck than to Becky.
On that fateful day of dusting, my rag and spray can of Pledge froze in the air while I thought about Becky Thatcher and how she deserved to have a little fun. Thus, a story was born. I decided that my version of Becky would be an adventurous young girl in overalls, with a smart mouth and a big heart. I decided that she would face the trials and tribulations of growing up, spit plenty of cherry pits, and be able to appreciate a fine piece of bacon.
The idea sat for a long time while I worked on other manuscripts, but even when I finally began writing, I didn’t think of it as an audacious pursuit… probably because I didn’t have firm expectations that it would be published. I just set out to write another manuscript and do the best job that I could.
Writers of fiction are free to use their imagination. In the process, incredible stories are written. Why did you radically change Mark Twain’s version of Becky Thatcher? What do you hope middle level readers will learn from her story?
I think it was just a matter of me wanting to let Becky Thatcher, a lesser-known character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, get into mischief and have adventures, something that seemed largely delegated to boys of that time period—to change her personality a little bit and see what happened.
As for what I hope middle level readers will learn, I never write stories with the intention of teaching a lesson, so I really just hope they find a story that’s engaging, heartwarming, and funny. If I had to pinpoint something readers might take away from the novel, I think this version of Becky has some noteworthy thoughts on the subject of grieving and continuing to cherish a loved one after they pass away. But mostly I just want the reader to have a good time reading the book.
Fiction writers often take parts of their personal life to craft a story. Do any elements of Becky Thatcher’s story come from your own experiences?
Becky’s backstory comes partially from my own experience. Several months before I started writing the novel, my brother-in-law passed away. I’d known him since I was 16. My sister was left a widow with two very young daughters to raise. The shock and pain of his death is beyond description—it was a loss that felt like (and still feels like) one of the world’s supreme acts of unfairness. The grieving element of the novel is a direct result of his passing. My brother-in-law was very much (and is still very much) beloved and he’s the inspiration for Becky’s brother. I named the character after him.
In addition to reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, did you do any additional research before starting your novel? For example, 19th century dialogue is slightly different than now. Is your dialogue unique or does it align with other books written during this time period?
The life of Samuel Clemens is really the only thing that I spent lots of time researching. Because he’s a historical figure, I wanted to make sure that, even fictionalized, certain aspects of his personality/age/temperament were somewhat true-to-life.
The dialogue and Becky’s voice/narration came fairly easily, perhaps because I grew up visiting my grandparents in a small town in southeastern Missouri and heard that type of accent quite a bit. I didn’t do additional research because, while it’s a historical setting, the dialogue was much more casual than anything I would have found in historical documents of the time. If you read letters from that time period, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way people spoke to each other in everyday life. And because I was trying to capture the spirit of Twain’s work, which is stylized when compared to many historical fiction books, I didn’t feel the need to read other works set during the 1860s. That said, I’ve read many works of historical fiction over the years, both for children and adults, and the wording in those has probably subconsciously seeped into my own writing.
The writing process is oftentimes considered a labor of love. Approximately, how long did it take for you to write, revise, and edit your manuscript?
The first draft of this manuscript took 7 weeks, which is a record for me. The words just flew out. Then I revised for 3 months. Then I queried for 2 months before getting an agent. Then my agent and I did another revision and held onto the manuscript for a few months in order to submit after the holiday season. Then, after I got a book offer and a publishing house, it went through another revision with my editor. So, yes, it was a labor of love!
Prior to securing your contract with Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, did you rely on any writer’s groups, beta readers, friends or relatives for feedback?
I’ve never had friends and relatives read my work, but critique partners have been invaluable. I have four critique partners who all gave excellent feedback that helped me with initial revisions.
Many first time authors fear the inevitable rejection letters. Can you share 5 lessons that you learned from the process of trying to find an agent and/or publisher? Did you ever contemplate self-publishing your work?
- Hope for the best, don’t fear the worst. Get excited about your quest, expect obstacles, and don’t give up!
- Check your ego at the door and don’t take rejections personally.
- Enjoy the learning process; it was when I stopped wanting to “get a book deal” and when I truly embraced writing the very best novel I could at the time that I started to see some agent action in my inbox.
- Query writing is an art form and having a great one is a wonderful way to get an agent’s attention. Get feedback on yours before sending it out!
- In that vein, really do your research. Read agent interviews in addition to their submission guidelines. You can save a great deal of time by focusing your manuscript submissions to agents who are very interested in your novel’s specific genre/subject.
I never considered self-publishing. Not only am I not-so-good at self-marketing (a MUST for self-publishing authors), but I also considered the query process as a measurement tool to see how I was growing as a writer. Over the three years and 9 manuscripts that I wrote/queried, I gradually saw my request rate increase. I saw form rejections turn into personalized rejections, and personalized rejections turn into requests to revise-and-resubmit. It was a great way of seeing that, even if I wasn’t quite there yet, I was improving. That sense of gradual improvement was enough to continue to keep me excited to continue with the query process as I learned more about the craft of writing.
What efforts have you made to align your book with the Common Core Standards? What resources will teachers find in the Common Core Curriculum Guide for The Actual and Truthful Adventure of Becky Thatcher?
I was very lucky to have Simon & Schuster put together a wonderful curriculum guide, written by a former Newbery Committee chair. Teachers will find questions, activities, and discussion points to engage their students, and will be able to use the guide in conjunction with any teaching units they already have that address Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While I didn’t consciously write this book to align with any standards or to teach any lessons, I think the nature of the novel’s relationship to a classic work of American literature makes it a wonderful resource for classroom teaching.
Are you working on another book? If so, can you share any information or a projected publication date?
I’m currently in the final editing stage of NOOKS & CRANNIES, a middle grade novel set in the Lake District of England in 1906. It’s a fun mystery-in-a-manor-house story that was pitched as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue. It will be published by Simon & Schuster during the summer of 2015.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
This has been wonderful, thank you! I appreciate the time you took to read my book and craft such thoughtful questions. There’s more information for readers, teachers, and librarians on my website, http://jessicalawsonbooks.com
Thanks for visiting my site.
Does your perspective change over time? How do your first-time experiences affect later experiences? Leave your comment below and be eligible for the Book Giveaway.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, September 7 will be eligible for a book giveaway.Jessica Lawson will send the randomly selected winner an autographed copy of The Actual & Truthful Adventure of Becky Thatcher.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.