The Gift of Writing: Taking Dreamweaver Road on the Road This Spring

For those of you here for the Books to Go Now Spring Fling Blog Hop from March 7th to 11th, please leave a comment below just this post with your name, email address, and comment (I’d love ideas for more ways for writers to give back to their communities, if you have them). By commenting, you will be entered into a chance to win one of three free signed copies of my novel, Dreamweaver Road, as well as BTGN’s two grand prizes.

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Dreamweaver Road, Book 1 of The Zaniyah Trilogy, is out on Amazon here. The rest of the trilogy, a total of three young adult fantasy novelettes, are forthcoming. 

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A few weeks before I officially became an author, I spent one glorious afternoon in a local elementary school talking to fifth graders about writing. When planning the talk, I’d had no idea where to start, so I launched with my own beginnings: little Kelly Ann Jacobson, sitting at her kindergarten desk, crayoning her first sentences over the dotted lines to match the picture she had drawn above. That moment had been the connection for me: I could describe what I had drawn, and both the drawing and the writing could give the reader the same image. It’s no wonder I became a poet too. So I shared that moment with the fifth graders, encouraging them to help me draw a character with both words and me physically drawing her on the white board, letting them add whatever came into their imaginations with the help of some prompts.

I wish I had a photo of that witch, who looked like a cross between a gingerbread man and a robot. I felt pretty bad about her, actually, until the kids asked me later on why I couldn’t become an illustrator as well, and then asked me again, and then asked me again until I was no longer self-conscious that my fish looked like a pair of scissors. That is why I love children.

After that we moved to plot, to the meat of the story, and built our own plot for our new witch character. I had to steer the conversation away from Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber a few times, but eventually we found our way to a vaguely romantic ending involving death. Then I read from my (at the time) forthcoming novel, Dreamweaver Road, for which the students were dead silent and then screamed “Yeah, more!” when I asked if I should go on. I may never have a better audience.

At the end, I did a Q&A session that lasted about thirty minutes and probably could have gone on another thirty. They had so many questions for me, and I answered all of them the best I could: Have you read Hunger Games? Do you write comics? Are they going to make a movie about your books? Will you tell people we’re friends? Will you sign my hand? How much money do you make? Do you have a YouTube channel? If you want to know what steps you should be taking as a YA author, trust me, just listen to children for an hour and you’ll have all the answers you need.

Toward the end, I asked the students how many of them wanted to be authors, and half of them raised their hand. “They do not want to be authors,” the teacher confided in me, or at least they hadn’t until I had come to speak to them. Despite the fifth grade teachers’ heroic attempts to prompt students in preparation for state testing, the kids had found prewriting laborious until they experienced it as something fun, a treat, let by someone who had learned how to apply it practically. As I said, kids are smart. But I had shown them a way to take all of that writing they were doing every morning and make books out of it, make silly stories with witches and flying pigs, and so in almost all of the thank you letters one of the teachers handed me before I left the school, the kids had written “I liked the prewriting the best.” Well, that and “Please tell people you know me, my name is _____.”

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Dreamweaver Road

 

The Big Revision

Though Dreamweaver Road, my young adult novel, was a short summer project that came out fully formed in just a few weeks, Cairo in White was what I call a breach baby (other authors more delicately call this a “labor of love”). The novel began as a short story during one of my undergraduate creative writing courses, just the first chapter of what would become Cairo in White, but when I tried to move on from Zahra’s story, I couldn’t. I was intrigued by her struggles and her culture, but more than that, I felt like I knew her. So I embarked on the novel-length journey, discovering Zahra’s daughter, Aisha, along the way, and wrote the first draft while completing my BA in Women’s Studies and working at a mixture of part time jobs. Amazing, I thought as I wrote up my first query and emailed it to agents during a Chemistry lecture I should have been listening to, the tough part is over!

Not quite. Though many agents responded to my query and asked for partials or the whole manuscript (this was before the big online book boom that has made it so difficult to find an agent or even get a response from one), it was evident that Cairo would need a solid revision. I was lucky enough to have one agent generously respond with a page of notes on how to do so, and I dove back into grammar changes, new scenes, and character traits in the eight months between undergraduate work and graduate work. Then, after resubmitting the manuscript to that agent and getting another page of generous notes and tips, I did the whole thing again.

As you can imagine, when this latest set of line edits and small changes didn’t make the cut, I decided to take a year off and write something else. And by something else, I mean a novel, a novella, a book’s worth of short stories, and many other poems and nonfiction pieces that made their way into literary magazines. Not only did I learn my craft by practicing with these stories and poems, but the boost of confidence I got when accepted helped me fill the hole left from the time spent on the giant novel wasting away on my computer.

During my last year at Johns Hopkins, a friend of mine who had read Cairo at the beginning of the program encouraged me to use it as my thesis. Am I ready to look at Cairo with fresh eyes? I asked myself. Am I really willing to spend a sixth year on this novel? Then I printed the entire manuscript, opened a blank Word document, and started from the beginning.

Right away, I knew the Cairo I was writing was not the same Cairo I had spent so many years revising. Since I had not even looked at the document for a year, I didn’t feel attached to my poorly constructed sentences or feel the need to keep the extra characters that had performed the same function in the story but had seemed so important in the last draft. I cut scenes, one point of view character, entire side plots… I was giving my novel a complete makeover, and it felt great!

Within weeks after typing my last word, I had a contract in my inbox from a wonderful publisher who loved my writing and believed in what I was doing with it. I finally understood (thanks to a wonderful class called Sentence Power) how to construct my sentences, and I could see my characters and their actions as either essential or nonessential parts of the whole. Even if I hadn’t gotten a contract, those six years would still have been worth it because I finally wrote a version of the book that I was proud to call my own. That, after all, is why I began writing in the first place.