Writing Through Fear: a letter from a middle school author

I am working on a new project right now — one that is shiny and full of the kind of promise that makes me both excited…and scared. Fear and I  are old friends when it comes to writing; we meet every book, right about now…as I hit Chapter 3 and wonder if this new idea is really is good as I hope it is, and if I’m really a good enough writer to pull it off.

So I was already thinking about that when I got an email this week from a middle school writer whose school I visited a while ago. I wrote back, of course, and also asked for his permission to share it here, with you, because I know many of you reading this are writers, too, and I thought you might have some interesting thoughts to share as well.

I’ve been meaning to write you for a while. I just have a few question I really need answered. You see, I am going to be a writer. I’ve known it since I was nine. I’m writing a book right now, but I keep running into the same problem: I’m scared. I know that I’m talented- everyone has told me. My mom says I have nothing to worry about. I worry anyway. Sometimes all I want is a glimpse of the future- just a reassurance that this isn’t all for nothing. I just want to know that I am going to succeed. I want so badly to get published. I want people to read my books- to love them. But I lose hope all the time. I’m so scared of failure and rejection, that sometimes I can’t bring myself to write. And it makes me miserable. When I am writing, I go into a sort of state. Even after I leave the computer, I’m living in this world I’ve created. I just can’t help smiling and thinking: this is real, this is within grasp.

So, I just want to know… Did you ever feel this way? Were you ever discouraged, or unsure? Afraid of failure? I just don’t know what to do. I want this so badly.

I don’t know if you’ll be able to respond… you’re probably very busy. But if you do, I will appreciate it so much. I have been dying to speak to a real author, who might understand and be able to offer advice where others cannot.

Thank you,
MS Writer (whose name I promised not to use here)

So there it is. I read this email three times before I sat down to answer, first because it is an amazing letter and second, because this young writer faces so many of the same struggles that I do.  I think perhaps there’s a myth this all goes away once you’re published.  It doesn’t, at least for me.  What gets better is knowing that if I do my job, if I sit down and write, Fear will eventually get bored just sitting at my heels and sulk away after a while. It’s the sitting down that’s important. The commitment to write anyway.  I’ll share my full response to MS Writer in another blog post later on, but right now, we’d both love to hear your thoughts. 

Do you ever feel this way?
Are you ever discouraged or unsure? Afraid of failure?
What do you do about it?
And whether you are published, or unpublished so far, how do you remind yourself…

"This is real. This is within reach."

IRA Presentation: Lively! An Author’s Take on Virtual Classroom Visits

For those who were at my IRA talk on Skype author visits in Chicago this week (and those who weren’t!)  here is my presentation via SlideShare. You’ll need to imagine me talking about most of the slides, but the links on the "Resources" pages are all live and should be helpful to teachers, librarians, and authors interested in Skype visits!

More IRA Photos: Author friends, a school visit, and the airport museum

I am home after a whirlwind trip to the International Reading Association Convention in Chicago, and I have a few last photos to share.

After a crazy-busy day of presenting and signing on Monday, I met up with the other Walker/Bloomsbury folks in the lobby to head to dinner. It’s always so much fun to chat with other writers & illustrators, some of whom I’d never met or only met online until this week.  Danette Haworth, the author of VIOLET RAINES ALMOST GOT STRUCK BY LIGHTNING and the forthcoming (and awesome!) SUMMER OF MOONLIGHT SECRETS, is someone I’ve "known" online since before either of us were Walker authors, and I got to meet her for the first time at IRA.

And here’s the whole gang at dinner…

At dinner, I sat across from the very cool Amy Krouse Rosenthal (She’s the one sitting down on the far right. You probably know her as the author of DUCK, RABBIT and LITTLE HOOT).  Amy told me about her "Beckoning of Lovely" film, which is…well…lovely.  It’s hard to explain, so here…just watch.

Cool, huh?

After a full day of running around and that big dinner, I was sleepy enough that I spent several minutes trying to open my hotel room door with my credit card. It didn’t work, but eventually I caught on, found the room key. and got to sleep so I’d be ready for a first-thing-in-the-morning visit with almost 400 students at Westmont Junior High School. 

The 6th, 7th, and 8th graders here were terrific to talk with and had great questions about both the process and the business of writing books.  After each presentation, their principal held a drawing for signed copies of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. 

Thanks, Westmont students and staff, for a fantastic welcome and a terrific morning at your school!  And remember what I said about that "secret writing."  It’s important.

After the last presentation, we took a quick photo with the book winners, and I quite literally went running out the door with my suitcase to my taxi so I could make my flight home.  This was such a quick and busy trip that I didn’t have any non-work time to spend in Chicago’s great museums.  However, I did manage to get a taste of culture at the airport as I was rushing to my gate.  I was delighed to spot a Brachiosaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur that lived 150 million years ago.

This replica is based on bones held at the Field Museum of Chicago, which I did visit on a different trip, and it’s spectacular. 

There was a quick dose of modern art along the people-mover, too.

I have a thing for these airport tunnels with the soothing lights (Isn’t there one in Detroit, too?).  They make me want to stop rushing and do yoga or something.  But it was time to head home.  Tomorrow, I’m back in my own classroom, where I’ll be greeted with the inevitable post-conference questions:

"Who was there?"
"Did you meet anybody cool?"
"Did you bring us books?!"

The answers?

-Lots of great teachers, librarians, publishing folks, authors, and illustrators.
-They were all cool.  Really cool.

IRA Day Two: Skyping Authors, Signing Authors, and Book-Spotting

This morning started early, with a really great tomato-mushroom-spinach omelet and a cab ride to a convention center that was already swarming with excited teacher-librarian-reader-author-publisher types. My presentation on Skype author visits was part of the Teachers’ Choice Symposium; here’s our whole crew.

From left to right: Kate Klimo, Shannon Hale, me, Kathy Erskine, Marjorie Podzielinski and Suzanne Jenson from the Teachers’ Choice Committee.

Kate started us off with a great talk about websites and how they’re great for interacting with young readers.  Then Kathryn shared some thoughts on blogs, social networking, newsletters (she is a busy lady!), and virtual visits, and I wrapped up with a presentation on my experiences with Skype Author Visits as both a teacher and an author.  Then, the funny and wonderful Shannon Hale Skyped live with 4th and 5th graders in Texas and Kansas to show everyone how it works.

Shannon is always a delightful speaker; she shared one of her elementary school stories and unfurled a long, long scroll of rejection letters from her early writing days.  And the kids were terrific; their nervousness at facing a room full of educators faded quickly, and it was fun to watch them enjoying the visit.

I also got to meet Katherine Sokolowski, another teacher whose class I’ve met via Skype! (A special shout-out to Mrs. Sokolowski’s class!  She told me you asked her to bring you along to the conference on a field trip – I would have loved to meet every one of you in person!)

Then it was off to the Walker/Bloomsbury booth to sign books.  Look who came to visit us!

That’s Shannon, Mitali Perkins, and me…

LJ buddy   stopped by, too, along with  , who was signing his new SMART ALECK’S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY later on.

All that talking and signing left about an hour for me to roam the exhibit hall and ogle beautiful new books.  I spotted a few famliar covers!

Look,  !

Tara Kelly’s  HARMONIC FEEDBACK was there, too!

And  ‘s CHAINS, which I’m reading with my 7th graders right now.  See the bound manuscripts next to it? That’s the sequel, FORGE, which I drooled over, to no avail.  (If you got one, please don’t tell me because I’ll have to take you off my friends list in a fit of jealousy.)

I’m looking forward to tonight’s publisher dinner with the Walker/Bloomsbury folks, then morning school visit (*waves to kids at Westmont Junior High*) before my flight home.  I am going to just pretend I did not hear that weather forecast for 6-12 inches of snow in Northern NY.

IRA Day One: Rain, Dinner, & Big Plans

Technically, the International Reading Association Convention in Chicago starts today, so today should be Day One, but since I arrived in town yesterday, I’m taking liberties.  Getting here itself was a bit of a trick, since Chicago was so rainy and foggy yesterday that the tops of the skyscrapers were swallowed up in clouds. My flight was delayed about an hour and a half, and from what I’ve seen on Twitter, I was one of the lucky ones. So many tweets from authors & teachers stuck in airports! I hope everyone trying to get to IRA makes it today!

Last night, I attended a publisher dinner with the awesome Walker/Bloomsbury folks, some amazing teachers & librarians, and author/illustrators Matt McElligott and Kevin O’Malley, all of whom were delightful.  Two of the educators who joined us, Suzanne Jensen and Marjorie Podzielinski, were familiar faces because I Skyped with their students earlier this year.  It was so much fun to meet them in person, and today, we’re presenting together, talking about Skype author visits as part of the IRA Teachers’ Choice Symposium. After my part of the presentation, Shannon Hale will be doing a live Skype visit with kids in Kansas and Texas. And authors Kate Klimo and Kathy Erskine will be presenting, too – I can’t wait!  (A couple LJ friends who know Kathy in person have told me that I must hug her for them when I see her. I am hoping she is the kind of person who will not be troubled by hugs from a stranger. Fair warning, Kathy, if you are reading this!)

So today, our symposium is from 11-1:45.  Shannon Hale and I will be signing in the Bloomsbury/Walker booth from 2-3.  I plan to spend a couple hours ogling new books on the exhibit hall floor after that and will try to take some photos to share later on.  Tonight, there’s another publisher dinner, where I’ll finally get to meet fellow Walker author Danette Haworth, whom I’ve known online since before either of us were Walker authors. I love that about the children’s book community; even when you are far away from home and don’t "know" anyone, you still find friends.

More to come (with pictures!) later on!

Thankful Thursday (with particular gratitude to the ABC!)

Just as I was about to leave school today, I checked my email, and author Katie Davis had forwarded an announcement from the Association of Booksellers for Children.  Her only additional note: "OMG!! Kate!!!"  

I scrolled down and discovered that THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. was one of four books for middle grade readers chosen for the E.B. White Read Aloud shortlist!  The E.B. White Read Aloud Award is a project of the Association of Booksellers for Children, to honor books that are terrific to share aloud and has long been a source of inspiration for our Messner family read-alouds.

So I stared at Katie’s email for a few minutes.  Then I checked the ABC website, you know, to see if she’d just made the whole thing up.  She hadn’t.  You can check out the E.B. White finalists for picture books and books for older readers here.

Whatever happens, I’m so, so honored to have GIANNA Z. included and recommended as a book to share out loud with families and classrooms.  And as one of my Twitter friends so wisely observed, "Any time your name is even used in the same sentence as E.B. White’s, it’s a very good day."    

GIANNA Z.  is in some amazing company on the list, along with Kristen Clark Venuti’s LEAVING THE BELLWEATHERS, Emily Bearn’s TUMTUM AND NUTMEG: ADVENTURES BEYOND NUTMOUSE HALL, and Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, which I’ve been reading with my daughter as our bedtime read-aloud. 

In fact, I blogged about it this morning…a full eight hours before I knew that either Grace’s book or mine was on the shortlist.  Weird, huh? 

Somewhere, I suspect E.B. White is smiling.


There have already been many, many amazing reviews of this book, and there’s that shiny Newbery Honor seal on the cover, too, so I’ll just say this. 

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON may be the most perfect bedtime read-aloud ever.   The characters, the rich, beautiful language, the magical and quiet moments…it is just a treasure.  My daughter and I have been enjoying it so, so much, and every time we close the book, I find myself glancing at how much is left, sorry that it will be over one of these nights.  

Thanks, Grace Lin… this is one of those shared stories she will remember forever.

Good News Tuesday

I am declaring today Good News Tuesday.  (Blogs are lovely that way, aren’t they? You can just decide on such things late in the day, and even if no one’s reading, it feels official.)  Here’s my thought…

Good news comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and sometimes, we forget to celebrate the small stuff.  So this is an invitation to do that. If you have some good news to share -any kind of good news – post it in the comments, okay?  Here’s my contribution:

Good News Item #1. The tulips waited.

I was afraid they’d bloom while we were away last week and we’d miss them, but here they are.

Good News Item #2. Donalyn Miller is working on a new book about reading for teachers!  If you don’t know her name yet and you work with kids and care about reading, you might want to grab a pen…   Her first book, THE BOOK WHISPERER, is an incredible resource for teachers and librarians (parents, too) who want to help kids become lifelong readers.  Happy news came via the Twitterverse today that she’s working on a new book called FOREVER READERS, due out in Spring 2011. 

Good News Item #3. Bonnie Shimko’s new middle grade novel THE PRIVATE THOUGHTS OF AMELIA E. RYE just got a starred review from Booklist!  And it’s out now – I loved this ARC so much that I shared my thoughts here right after I finished reading.  You can have your very own copy now.  It’s amazing, so that’s good news indeed.

Good News Item #4.  I’m getting ready to go to the International Reading Association Conference in Chicago, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m talking about Skype author visits as part of a panel, along with Shannon Hale, Kathy Erskine, Kate Klimo, and members of the IRA Teachers’ Choice Committee.  I’ll be signing THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and ARCs of SUGAR AND ICE at the Walker/Bloomsbury booth from 2-3 on Monday, attending a couple publisher dinners (where I finally get to meet fellow Walker author Danette Haworth!), and visiting with middle school kids before my flight home on Tuesday.  If you’ll be at IRA, too, would you include that in your comment?  I’d love to find time to say hi!

What else can we celebrate along with the tulips today?  Good news of all shapes & sizes welcome!

Florida Wildlife, Part 2: Kayaking with Alligators

On the last day of our Florida trip, my daughter and I did something we’ve been talking about for a while — took a guided kayak tour in the Everglades.  My friend Loree Griffin Burns ( ) had recommended the guides her family used this winter, and we drove to Everglades City to meet them.

We launched the kayaks in the Turner River and set out paddling.  As a rule, we tried to stay fifteen feet away from the alligators sunning on the banks so we wouldn’t disturb them. 

Sometimes, though, that wasn’t possible when the river was only a few feet wide. 

We were warned to give this next gator a little extra space… The guides know him as "One-Eyed Willie" because he’s blind in one eye, and they keep a close eye on him because he’s unusually aggressive toward paddlers sometimes.  He is also enormous (and a little grumpy-looking…but maybe that’s just me.)

Thankfully, Willie was off in the weeds when we paddled by and didn’t seem at all interested in visiting.

The guides took us to a cypress dome…a spot in the swamp where the cypress trees grow tall and create an open area among the reeds. 

It’s full of Bromeliads, cypress knees, and nursery logs like this one…

A  nursery log is a fallen tree that provides a perfect ecological setting for seedlings as it decays. It looks like a big window-box in the swamp, doesn’t it?

We got out of our kayaks and hiked through the water a bit here to get a closer look at the nursery log and some orchids.  The mud and debris at the bottom almost sucked off one of my shoes.  Back on the broader part of the river, one of our guides pushed our kayak closer to shore. "Look on that log," he said.

These little guys were only a little over a foot long. Our guide said they’re about a year and a half old and completely on their own.

As we headed toward salt water, the river began to narrow, and we entered a mangrove tunnel that required us first to break our paddles in half, then put them away all together, duck down, and pull ourselves from branch to branch.

The mangrove tunnel was full of Bromeliads – the biggest I’d ever seen.

There were fewer alligators here, but we did meet a couple green water snakes along the way.

This osprey was "yelling" at us a little as we paddled back to the boat ramp – I think he was ready to have his river back.  We were just thankful to have shared it for a few hours.

Out on the river, it was easy to see not only how special but also how fragile this ecosystem is.  We left with a new appreciation for efforts to keep it the magical place that it is.

Time and Space…and a few birds & reptiles

Visiting family in Southwest Florida last week gave me some much-needed quiet time outside.  There are so many special places in this part of the world…so different from the ecosystems here at home, and I love the way Florida nature feels so quiet and so loud all at once.

Want to wander in the swamp with me a little?  Come on…I’ll bring the sunscreen & bug spray…

This great blue heron was wading in Myakka River State Park. I loved his reflection.

Turtles sunbathing just off the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in the Fakahatchee Strand.  Note the second one in line with his arms and legs stretched out.  I think he looks like he is playing Superman…or doing yoga.

Later, we took a walk on the Naples Fishing Pier and saw this brown blob coming our way…

Can you tell what it is?  How about now?


Stingrays.  There must have been more than a hundred in this school.  They swam right up under the pier, turning and swirling as if they were in a ballet.  Or a poem,maybe.  At any rate, they were magnificent.

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