Friday, September 15, 2023

Glimmers and Starbursts and Hopeful Endings


You may remember my big summer news:  After a particularly nasty fall, I underwent surgery to replace a very sad hip.  I couldn’t take my walks. I couldn’t go into the woods or see my favorite trees or feed my favorite turtles.  The news was overwhelmingly depressing. I’ve watched every season of Doc Martin and The Witcher. And you know Whoooo!

And just about that time, a meme made its way to my page, defining the nature of glimmers. A glimmer is that micro-moment of happiness; a sign of hope.

So, I decided enough is enough. I pulled out an old story and made it new again.  Working at the desk, while doing my leg exercises, o! the possibilities!

A month later, I could bike ½ mile (albeit, it’s a PT bike. But a bike is a bike!)

I walked 45 minutes (albeit, I stopped to practice my balance, with my trusty cane – Miss Purple Bess – by my side.)

O, big glimmer. My eighth book, this one from Charlesbridge, is scheduled for Spring 2026! 

So how does this relate to our topic on endings? Ending is such a particularly good concept for me these days. I went to my Doc appt recently. I'm at the halfway mark. Only 6 more weeks of PT.  Endings. And new beginnings!

In other words, hope is the core ingredient for a satisfying ending to a story. There are many ways to end a story. There’s the happily ever after, common in romance stories and other fairy tales. There’s the “the restoration of honor through sacrifice; the bolstering of friendship and altruism through earned humility.” As Vaughn Roycroft noted in his article, Good Story Endings: Happy or Sad, or Something Else?” 

There’s the tragic ending, epitomized by Jack’s death in Titanic. And the open ending, when nothing is really resolved, and the murderer seems to have escaped. Then there's the redemption at the end of the story. In each scenario,  hope allows the character to move forward, and the possibilities are endless. After Jack died, Rose’s ‘heart lived on' to love again and have a family. Darth Vader found redemption and the rebellion found new hope.  

Hope means the story didn’t end with the tragedy, or even with the ecstasy. It is, in essence, the beginning to the next chapter – the sequel, if you will.

David Means, author of Two Nurses, Smoking, said, “A good ending doesn’t answer a question. It opens up the deeper mystery of the story itself.”

In other words, through dark moments and tragic scenes, and happy reunions, the most memorable ending invites readers to glean meaning from the story and, in so doing, becomes inspired, as noted by Hannah Gullickson in her article, “Imagination and Writing: The “Hopeful Ending” vs. the“Happy Ending”.  

And to end this reflection with a starburst: this morning I submitted the revision to my agent. 

“Life is amazing. And then it's awful. And then it's amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it's ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That's just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it's breathtakingly beautiful.” -- L.R. Knost

-- Bobbi Miller

Thursday, August 31, 2023

And They All Live Happily Ever After ...Not! Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

 Has this ever happened to you? You've invested hours, days, weeks of your precious reading time in the Novel of the Season. The writing is wonderful, the plot a page turner. The characters have become like members of your family. The  book resides in your brain when you've not reading. This is the best book ever until...

Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am... it's over. It's over and you feel cheated. What a terrible ending! Maybe it was ludicrous, given the 400 previous pages. Maybe you didn't see it coming...and not in a good way. Maybe the writer got tired and looked for the nearest exit ramp.

Endings are your final impression of a book. A sucky ending is not likely encourage you to read another book by that author. And we authors do like return readers. (So do publishers.)

One of the reasons I became a writer was the awful endings of books as I read as a kid. The books available to me in the 60's were primarily written in the 50's and 40's, the Era of Perpetually Happy Endings. No names mentioned, but there were a couple of "teen romance" writers whose plain but brilliant female main character always landed her dream boat by the last page. If Dreamboat had discovered the inner beauty of Plain Jane, I would've been happy, but that's not what happened. In every single book, Jane suddenly became a curvaceous beauty, with a perfect complexion and shimmering hair. I can't tell you the number of times 10-year-old me threw a book across the room, yelling, "Real life isn't like that!" I vowed to myself I'd become a writer of books with Real Life endings.

The first Real Life ending I encountered (although I didn't realize it) was Charlotte's Web when I was 8. I cried for days (one of the few books that have made me cry.) I didn't really think very much about why E.B White chose to end his book that way, until I was in the Vermont College MFA program. Someone on the faculty--if only I could remember who--said, "Endings should be inevitable." Light bulbs! Fireworks! Lightening! Yes! But the lecturer was still talking, "Inevitable doesn't need to be predictable. The ending should be organic to what has come before." Ding ding ding! In two minutes, I learned the secret of a good ending.

Now all I had to do was write one.  

There are people who don't write without an outline, complete with ending. I'm not one of those people. I know the beginning, I know some of what happens in the middle...but the end? The end is always as much of a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader. If I have to think hard, then the end is neither inevitable or organic. It's just an ending.

In writing both of my middle grade novels, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, I thought I had the end firmly in mind and then... In Yankee Girl, several new characters came out of nowhere, jumped in the scene and took it to another place all together, with me, racing behind, trying to keep up. Jimmy's Stars had my main character remember something from chapter one--something I had forgotten--that ended the story for me. Organically. Inevitably.

Picture books are a little easier to end, because the story isn't as complicated. However, I had no idea how to end First Grade Stinks. I didn't so much write that one, as take dictation. My daughter came home from school every day with a new complaint about first grade. Why wasn't it cool, like kindergarten? I couldn't use reality here, because my daughter and her first grade teacher never came to terms. I had to let that one "germinate" in the computer files for a year as I contemplated what my character... wanted from first grade...and what she really needed. What she needed was a new attitude. Once she found that...the ending came all in a rush. Happily-ever-after-but with a twist of reality.

Not all my readers appreciate my endings. I've lost count of the kids who've asked  "Why did such and such have to happen?  That was so sad!"   I ask them, "So what would the story be if that thing didn't happen?" The answer is usually, "Well then Ellie/Alice Ann/Lily would be happy." 

"OK, now tell me your version of the story," I say. The young reader starts to retell the story until the troubling plot point. They fumble around for a minute, before saying "And they all lived happily ever after." Pause. "That's not a very good story, my way, is it?" Nope. (No conflict, no story...but that's a different post.) How the character (and author) handle and resolve conflict realistically makes a satisfying ending.

 I'm sure there are kids all over the world, throwing my books across the room, yelling, "What a dumb ending!" But I'll bet they don't say "Real life isn't like that."

And they always ask about a sequel.

P.S. Indulge me a minute. This is my daughter, on the first day of kindergarten, and the same daughter, heading off to her first week of teaching her own Pre-K class. I could not be prouder of her. She also uses "extra story time" as a class reward. If you're a picture book writer and you're my friend, your books are in her classroom library.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, August 18, 2023

Once upon a time...


Once upon a time, I had the good fortune to learn from the late 

and oh, so wise award-winning author and teacher Richard Peck.

When it comes to crafting story, he taught me, 

“In the beginning is the end, in the end is the beginning.”

It matters little what my character seeks –

a problem’s solution,

a need’s fulfillment,

the realization of a dream,

the granting of a wish.

Somewhere within the story’s requisite inevitable yet surprising 

satisfactory resolution lies its start.


Mr. Peck’s sage advice has become a mantra of sorts, one I gladly 

repeat to myself as well as my writers and students when we find 

ourselves facing unreachable endings to our stories.

His words provide the perfect Rx.

Revisiting a story’s beginning allows us to reconnect with our 

characters to finally see their narrative arcs, to remind ourselves 

what our story is about, to remember our story’s promise to the 


The beginning and end need to be of a piece so the story works as 

an harmonious whole.


Even better, though, especially for picture book writers, revisiting

 a story’s beginning words – those we chose when we launched our 

story, often reveals hidden nuggets that await discovery and 


A word ripe for word play or repetition.

A phrase worthy of a refrain.

A reader-grabbing sentiment, revealing the story’s heart.

For example, in my There Goes Lowell’s Party! (Holiday House), 

with his faith in his family’s love and resourcefulness to over-

come all obstacles confirmed, Lowell confidently casts all doubt 

aside and declares: “Here comes my party!

In my Fancy That (Holiday House), Pippin Biddle honors his 

“Though far, I am near, cheering you on!” promise to his sisters to 

save them from the Poor House, prompting the sisters to in time

exclaim, “Though far, you were near, cheering us on!”

My chosen story structure in Chicken Soup By Heart (Simon & 

Schuster) – a story within a story – begins and ends with, “Here it 

is, from start to finish, how such a nice boychik saved the Chicken 

Soup Queen.”


Of course, and fortunately, Richard Peck taught me far more than 

the craft of writing. He modeled for writers, published or not, 

dedication to craft and dogged pursuit of one’s dreams.

Yes, our stories’ ends must hold their original beginnings and vice-


But his multitude of singular characters showed me what all of our 

story characters come to learn if they are different for the Journey:  

like all ends, THE END inevitably births new and surprising

 satisfactory Once upon a times!


Thanks to Molly at Nix the Comfort Zone for hosting today’s Poetry 


Here’s to Happy-Ever-After endings – my favorite kind!


Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, August 4, 2023

Last Echoes


I once walked a family member through the process of writing a eulogy. They were grief stricken by the loss but also about to step into battle with the surviving family members over the inheritance.  Before the death, the family found themselves in a tangled web of nastiness.  

When I arrived in town to help the family member tasked with delivering the eulogy, I found that he had written very little for the service the next day and what he had written was a mess of ego-based, one upmanship of the family members he was outraged over. A self rightous attempt to gain control, He was ready to air the dirty laundry of the family to the captive audience attending the funeral. My writing skills kicked in and I began the very painful rewriting process, moving him away from using the pulpit to shame the relatives and toward telling his father’s life story.  My message was strong, clear, and unwavering. 

“ You are retelling the highlights of this man’s lifetime.  Your are telling this man's final story. It is the one and only time it will get told succinctly to those who have gathered to say goodbye. This is the last echo of his life.

I surprised myself that I was able to tease a decent eulogy out in the wee hours of the morning before the funeral.  But then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s how I approach the ending of most of my stories.  The ending is the echo of the heartbeat of the story, whether it’s a picture book, a graphic novel, or a YA novel that I’m writing.  My two published picture books and my other stories that are out on submission end with that echo…the bookend of a circular story if you will.

 Egyptian Lullaby Illustrated by Hatem Aly  (Roaring Brook Press)

Hello, Little One:  A Monarch Butterfly Story Illustrated by Fiona Halliday  (Page Street Kids)

As an artist and writer, I tend to be somewhat metacognitive. I spend a significant amount of time reflecting on my process and analyzing my intentions.  My why as an artist is the desire to provoke discourse.  I want to challenge thinking and create dialogue so that people communicate, connect, and think…even small children.  That ending echo is the most important  beat of the story.  It ensures that engagement occurs and for me, what is art without engagement?

I love the quote that April highlighted in her last post and her description of serpentine endings. 

"One way to end the poem is to turn it back on itself, like a serpent with its tail in its mouth." ~ Maxine Kumin

Her post helped give me context to what I do.  She helped me name and identify my approach to endings.  I hope that our two posts back-to-back bring to you some thoughts and reflections on your own writing process as you explore… HOW DO YOU APPROACH ENDINGS?

For me…whether it’s a picture book, a graphic novel, a YA novel, or the eulogy at the end of one’s life, the ending is the final echo of the story.

Thursday, July 20, 2023


Howdy, Campers and Happy Poetry Friday! (The link to PF is below)

Our topic this round is HOW DO YOU APPROACH ENDINGS?

How do we know the last chapter, last paragraph, last word is the right last piece of a puzzle?  

In ending my first picture book, TO RABBITTOWN, I took the advice of poet Maxine Kumin without realizing it.
Image of a large red speech bubble with the following quote in white lettering: "One way to end the poem is to turn it back on itself, like a serpent with its tail in its mouth." ~ Maxine Kumin

Here are the first two pages of TO RABBITTOWN by me, with beautiful watercolor illustrations by Robin Spowart (Scholastic):

I opened her rabbit-y cage
and while she nibbled celery
I asked her:
Where do the rolling hills go?
She said:
Beyond the wheat
to a pine forest
to the edge of it all
to Rabbittown

I snuggled her close
She told me:
Hop there
Ride the green waves
Find the cliffs
past the smell of the sea
There you’ll find
those brown rabbit eyes
And so I went

The child leaves home and joins a world of rabbits, slowly turning into one.  The last three pages read:

I said:
I miss them
I want to run back through the hills
to the tops of the cliffs
toward the smell of mown lawns
where I’ll find
those curious human eyes

And off I hopped
through the pine forest
over the rolling wheat hills
past the smell of the sea
back to mown lawns
and my family

To grow legs again
to grow arms again
to hold my pet bunny again
who holds memories
of Rabbittown.

That book was published in 1989. At the time, I knew nothing about serpentine endings or writing. Nothing. I just liked tinkering with words. And that's how I still feel. Every. Single. Day. (Except some days...keep reading.)

How DOES one write (and end) a poem about endings?  I began by brainstorming:


the last cookie
the last episode
the last stop for four hours so you’d better pee now
the last words before the lights go down and the curtain comes up

the end of summer
the end of the year
the end of the meeting

the end of wearing diapers
the end of wearing braces

the end of the song
the end of Uncle Rob

the end of...
the end

A week or so after writing that, I threw everything into the pot (including the fact that my son's an ER doc) and messed around with end rhymes, without any organization or story:


A fire, a falsehood, a romance? (Swipe right.)

A concert, a friendship, a novel, a flight?

A sentence (that’s spoken), a sentence (for life)?

A shell game, a head trip, a story, a hike?

A hoax at a rally, a ruling, a right?

A swing shift, a bleeding, a day and a night?


A habit, an anthem, a bias, a fight?

A birthday, a luncheon, an obit, a rite?

A card: “may this new year be filled with bright lights”?

Wild rhyme, unhinged rhyme in this labyrinth?

Good night!

Clearly it needed some kind of organizing principle. Maybe the words in each line could be related? Or the lines could all march to a satisfying ending? I sent it to my best friend Bruce Balan, asking:

Dear Poem Repair Person, Please take my out-of-tune poem and make it sing in four-part harmony. 
The suggestions he sent were supposed to go here: _________________________________. But I'm not going to tell you his suggestions because he's right and I'm tired and it'll take too much work and I don't wanna.

Well, okay, I will share one question he sent:  "My real question is, what are you trying to say?" I had no idea.  

Sometimes internal logic, metaphors and a perfect visual shape will emerge from the muck of the marsh. And since none of that happened, I was hoping he would just tell me what I was trying to say. Or just rewrite the whole thing for me. Isn't that what friends are for?
Image of the last piece fitting into a completely white puzzle with these words on the puzzle: "I was hoping that as I moved the puzzle pieces around, they would come together in a satisfying, cohesive click." ~ AHW

Though the poem above didn't have heart or logic or answer the title's question, it was a SO MUCH FUN to write!  

Breaking News:
 sometimes it's not fun.

Sometimes I have to let things "cook" for awhile and the answers appear. But I didn't have time for that--this post was due! 

I decided to admit to you, dear campers, that "I'm tired of trying to figure things out" (phrase from a song by Tom Hunter). I can't seem to write a poem about endings. So, I took Dory's advice. I just kept swimming. I thought about my favorite hike and how last week it was mysteriously much harder than usual. (I didn't know I was coming down with a cold.)


This gentle path along the bluff

becomes a trail up a hill

and now a trek up to the ridge...

that peak is far.

That peak is steep.

This hike is hard.

I hear it growl...

and then it steepens loud

at me.

all poems--or rough drafts of future Pulitzer Prize-winning poems (c)2023 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Thank you for sticking with me to the bloody end! I'll leave you with one last thought and, of course, the link to Poetry Friday:

“Poems are short stories
with punctuation disorders”

Tom Cassidy 

Thank you, Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
for hosting Poetry Friday this week!

Image of the end papers from The Witchling's Wish
by Lu Fraser, illustrated by Sarah Massini
posted by Picturebook_particulars on Instagram 

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland with help from Bruce Balan and the infinite knowledge of poets everywhere.

PS from Carmela: Congratulations to the winner of our 2 for 1 Giveaway: A Set of Metaphor Dice and a copy of the Poetry by Chance Anthology 
Marcie F.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

2 for 1 Giveaway: A Set of Metaphor Dice and a copy of the Poetry by Chance Anthology

Happy Poetry Friday! (Wondering what Poetry Friday is? See this page for info.) 

Today we have a special treat for all our followers who are fans of metaphor and/or poetry, and especially for those of you who teach writing.

I mentioned in my June 16 post that we'd be hosting a giveaway of Poetry by Chance: An Anthology of Poems Powered by Metaphor Dice edited by Taylor Mali (Button Poetry). Well, Taylor surprised me by sending not only a copy of the book autographed to "a fan of TeachingAuthors" but by also including a set of Metaphor Dice for the giveaway.

I include instructions on how to enter the giveaway for this fun prize duo at the end of this post. But first, I want to share a bit about the anthology and give you a sneak preview of my poem that appears in it.

As it says in the book's description: "Poetry By Chance is the first collection of poems that were all prompted by different rolls of Metaphor Dice, featuring submitters from the inaugural Golden Die Contest." But that description fails to note that the anthology includes poems from young people, ages 10 and up, as well as adults. The book also contains a section devoted to Lesson Plans using Metaphor Dice to inspire writers of all ages. 

Poetry by Chance will be released Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Taylor Mali will be celebrating with a free book launch the following Friday, July 14, at Brooklyn Poets, 144 Montague St, Brooklyn, NY. If you're in Brooklyn, I hope you'll attend in person. If not, you can participate virtually instead. But either way, you must register in advance to attend, which you can do so here

Even though the book isn't officially out till next week, I have received permission to share my poem with you today. As I mentioned last time, the poem was inspired by these dice:

 Here's the poem:


      For some,
      forgetting is a gentle blessing
      providing absolution
      and forgiveness of sins.

      For me,
      forgetting is a harbinger of death,
      bearing the image of my grandmother—
      her brown eyes blank, blinking—
      unable to remember my name.

© 2023 Carmela A. Martino, Published in Poetry by Chance: An Anthology of Poems Powered by Metaphor Dice edited by Taylor Mali (Button Poetry). All rights reserved.  

In my last post, I mentioned that I first learned of the anthology from a Poetry Friday post by Heidi Mordhorst, and that my poem follows one of two of Heidi's that appear in the book. I neglected to say that the Lesson Plan section in the back of Poetry by Chance includes a contribution by Margaret Simon, another Poetry Friday regular. Margaret shares a fun way she uses Metaphor Dice to teach students about figurative language. It's lovely to have my poem in such great company!

Speaking of Poetry Friday, after you enter our giveaway below, be sure to visit this week's Poetry Friday round up hosted by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

And now for our giveaway!

. . . . . .

To enter the drawing to win a copy of Poetry by Chance: An Anthology of Poems Powered by Metaphor Dice edited by Taylor Mali (Button Poetry) AND a set of Metaphor Dice, use the Rafflecopter widget below. (Note: if the widget doesn't appear, click on the link at the end of this post that says "a Rafflecopter giveaway" to enter.)

You may enter via up to 5 options. The more options you choose, the better your odds!

If you choose option 4, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY’S blog post or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven’t already “liked” our Facebook page, please do so today!

If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA RAFFLECOPTER BELOW.  The giveaway ends July 15, 2023 and is open to U.S. Residents only.

If you’ve never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here’s info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway.  And a second article explains the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

Good luck!



a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, June 16, 2023

3 Little Words Can Be a Powerful Prompt: Playing with Metaphor Dice

Hi, all! Today I'm wrapping up our series on the subject of Writing Prompts, which April kicked off in this post two months ago. It's been interesting to read the varied responses to the topic from the other TeachingAuthors and some of our followers. Personally, I love prompts, especially because they often take me to unexpected places. At the end of this post, I share a poem inspired by three little words, courtesy of Metaphor Dice.

First, though, I'm pleased to announce that those same three words also inspired a poem that will appear in Poetry by Chance: An Anthology of Poems Powered by Metaphor Dice edited by Taylor Mali (Button Poetry). The book will be released in less than four weeks, on July 11, 2023. And I'm thrilled to say that we'll be offering a giveaway of the book next month, so stay tuned!

I had never heard of Metaphor Dice until reading about them in a post on Heidi Mordhorst's blog. Metaphor Dice were invented by poet and teacher Taylor Mali, who edited the anthology. The official Metaphor Dice website describes them as "The writing tool that plays like a game!" The dice come in three colors and have words printed on them. The words on the red dice are concepts. The white dice contain adjectives, and the blue ones, objects. To play the game, you roll three dice--one of each color--and then use the words to form a metaphor. If you like, you can then expand the metaphor into a poem. If you're not a poet, you might try incorporating the metaphor into an essay or story.

Heidi's post included a link to the Golden Dice contest for Metaphor Dice-inspired poems. (The contest ended April 30, 2022.). Winning poems would then be published in Poetry by Chance.

I couldn't resist trying my hand at using the dice. But crafting a satisfactory poem from the metaphors I came up with proved more challenging than I expected. Here are the three words that finally gave me the inspiration I needed:


And here's a draft of one of the poems these words inspired:

            Forget and Forgive

    In the past, I fought against the notion
    that forgetting might be a gentle blessing
    by memorizing my mistakes for quicker recall.

    Now, I’ve come to see that forgetfulness
    can be a way to wipe the slate clean,
    and finally forgive myself. 

 © Draft 2022 Carmela A. Martino. All rights reserved. 

I can't share the poem that made it into Poetry by Chance just yet, but I can tell you that I'm honored to have my work included in the anthology. As it turns out, my poem follows one of two by Heidi Mordhorst! 

Poetry Friday logo by Linda Mitchell
I look forward to saying more about the anthology in next month's giveaway post. Meanwhile, be sure to check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup hosted by Michelle Kogan.  


Friday, June 2, 2023

Not Prompts—Sensory Cues! by Mary Ann Rodman

 The term “prompt” is not a favorite of writers. I know it’s not a favorite of students. I don’t know if “journal writing” is still used by teachers to keep students quiet while taking attendance. However, I’ve taught a whole generation of kids who wince at the words “prompt” and “journal” after years of having to expound on “my favorite fruit” and “what is a good friend” in a notebook that the teacher checked but never read. 

To me, “prompt” means you’ve lost your way and your memory needs nudging—like being prompted on stage. I prefer the term “cues”, but not just any cues, but sensory cues. 

Sensory cues are those aromas or textures that evoke particular emotions and memories. I keep a list of these cues. Here are a few of mine: Smells—honeysuckle, lime scented aftershave, mildew, baking bread or cookies. Textures—velvet, sand, grass, peanut butter, porcelain.

Let’s take peanut butter—which is on both of my lists. I imagine the mouthfeel of soft bread mixed with crunchy peanut butter (my favorite).  The smell of peanut butter recalls a twin aroma—that of the slightly soured milk smell of my vinyl Barbie lunchbox in second grade. Even though my thermos was washed every day, the scent of milk and peanut butter had absorbed into the soft sided vinyl. Oh, and that’s another cue —the sharp chemical smell of a new vinyl lunchbox or three-ring notebook. Suddenly, I’m back in my second grade classroom, with a cascade of cues: pencil shavings, chalk dust, hot asphalt (it was a new school and the parking lot was still being paved). This is followed by specific images, like Margaret who sat across the aisle. She wore her hair in long ringlets, wore periwinkle suede Hush Puppies and read nothing but Winnie-the-Pooh books the whole year. 

Whew! That was unexpected! See how that works? Sensory details are what makes writing come alive for me. So much of what we write in a first draft is what we see or hear. As a result my first draft often feels like a string of events—a lot of “and he went there and she said this.” It’s when I use my cues (NOT prompts), that my story picks up momentum. 

Suddenly, I want to write a second grade story. Hmmm—I wonder what happened to Margaret?

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Prompting Possible Imaginations

I happen to agree with Esther when it comes to writing prompts. I’m not a great devotee of prompts.  

We’ve all heard those success stories of debut authors. (I hesitate to use the qualifier “overnight’, as it tends to negate the work that went into the writing.) J.K. Rowling. Veronica Roth. S.E. Hinton. Christopher Paolini self-published his first book, Eragon. He sold thousands of copies, when Random House took notice and bought the rights, and the rest is dragon history.  Emma Cline, who wrote The Girls, was offered a three-book contract with a reported $2 million deal.  

The real success stories – and the real champions -- are not the lucky debuts but we the sloggers, the majority of us who get up every morning and do what we do. We don’t define ourselves by rejections, nor by successes. We write. And if we’re lucky, we have a friend or two who send reminders, wrapped in chocolate, with a note: Yes, rejection sucks. Eat chocolate. Now get back to work.

But getting back to work is not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve written about my own trials in finding an agent many times, including here.  This week, news broke out about events surrounding New Leaf Agency (See Publisher’s Weekly article here), bringing into stark relief how excruciating the business of writing can be. Despite having seven books, a few award-winners and several short stories published in major venues, I've faced my own challenges to find an agent. And this in stressor certainly impacted my writing process. I mean, what’s the point?

After parting ways with my third agent, I stopped submitting to focus more on the story engineering process, taking classes from some of the best people in the business. (I highly recommend classes from the indomitable Emma D. Dryden, from the master editors of Eileen Robinson and Harold Underdown at Kid's Book Revisions, from Lorin Oberweger's Free Expressions.) Taking classes from such great teachers kept me in the flow.

 In 2023, one editor finally made an offer (shhhh, it’s not official yet. But watch this space! Unless, of course, change happens.).  Another editor invited me to create a proposal for a multi-book project. Who-op! The proposal was accepted and made its way up the chain. With these several manuscripts in hand, I was able to connect with my current agent.  

Still, we remember that things can change on a dime. That’s what it means to have a career in writing: the business of publishing is always in a state of flux. And so it happened again, the proposed series was rejected. Historical fiction is a hard sell.  What's next? Well, my agent and I are working on it.

If there’s a prompt to be had, perhaps the only one that matters is: 

Write what you love. Write your passion. 

 I write historical fiction. As Liz Trenow states (Writer’s Digest, April 2023): “When I discovered historical fiction, I loved the way it opened up worlds I knew little about, led me into researching eras of history, even took me traveling to find out more.” 

For me, history is my inspiration.  I grew up reading historical adventures and watching Doctor Who (a show that bent history into a wibbly wobbly adventure, to be sure!) Of course, it was the boys who were having all the fun. I wanted to know about those other stories, plain and ordinary girls like me. 

I also love to research. I enjoy reading diaries of those who experienced the events. When writing Girls of Gettysburg (2014), I walked the battlefield four times, watching re-enactors create this moment in history taht took place one hundred fifty-one years ago. I stood in the very place where twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field. And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were my girls of Gettysburg

My characters also broke the rules and norms of their period as they struggled to take control of their destiny, although I was careful to provide context.  This focus reaffirmed the theme that underscores all my writing: Doing right wasn’t always easy, and sometimes it could be dangerous, but it could also change the world. And, in reading my stories, young readers are empowered (hopefully) to do the same.

For me, historical fiction tells the story of a living past, illustrating the continuity of life. Humans by their very nature are difficult, complicated, short-sighted, and at times, tragic. And yet, there is hope, grounded in human experience and perspective, all of which has been the driving force of my storytelling.

As my protagonist in Big River’s Daughter (2013) said, “This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”  And therein is the hope of River’s journey: if one perseveres,  life can be full of possible imaginations.

So, the question -- or the prompt -- becomes: Why do you like to write, and what do you love about your writing? 

-- Bobbi Miller