Books That Made Me: The Harry Potter Series

Welcome to part three of my little series about my favorite books and authors, part of this month’s #SixteensBlogAbout topic over at The Sweet Sixteens.

I’ve already written about two of the seminal books of my adolescence, Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes talking to me is probably expecting this post, because I have never been a quiet Harry Potter fan.

Selections from my HP shelf.

Selections from my HP shelf.

Back in 1998, I was on a mock-Newbery committee made up of local children’s librarians. I read hundreds of books that year, and one of those was an unassuming, unknown book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. It showed up in the midst of a pile of other books, and I had never heard of it. I was hooked by chapter two, and stayed up all night to read it and recommended it left and right.

And then, well, you know what happened next. It’s easy to forget, now that it’s such a phenomenon, that the first Harry Potter book was rejected by just about every publisher in Britain, that it was released quietly and didn’t gain momentum until kids started passing it around on the playground. I was lucky to be able to read the first book (and the second and third, which I quickly ordered in British editions, as they weren’t yet out in the U.S.) with no expectations and no hype.

When the fourth book came out, I was at the American Library Association conference in Chicago, and I stayed up all night reading it to avoid spoilers. Around that time I also started getting involved in the online fandom, first a listserv called “Harry Potter for Grownups” (where I apparently, accidentally, ignited the HP shipping wars., but that’s another post…), and later at a wonderful site called The Sugar Quill, where I would make some of the best friends of my life. We wrote fanfiction and obsessed over plot details and came together in person from all over the U.S. to create silly podcasts and watch the movies and, of course, read the books. Some of us even got matching tattoos. And our friendships have remained strong even after Book 7.

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So, for me, though the Harry Potter books are wonderful stories and I love losing myself in that world, they are also the books that truly made me part of a giant community of readers.   My memories of the books will always be tied up with the people who made experiencing them so much fun.

And, not insignificantly, they inspired me to write. A lot. Mountains of fanfiction, which led to original fiction, which led to where I am now.

Definitely magic.

And We Have a Title!

After much speculation and back-and-forthing, I am pleased to announce that my 2016 debut Young Adult novel officially has a title:

SWORD AND VERSE

The story takes place in land where writing is the sacred privilege of a few, and a slave girl, Raisa, gets the extraordinary chance to learn the language of the gods when she becomes a royal tutor. But her dreams are threatened by her forbidden love for the prince, and her loyalty is tested by the Resistance, who urges her to join in the fight for her people’s freedom.  It’s about the consequences of following your heart, and learning to trust yourself and other people.

My editor, Alexandra Cooper, came up with the title, and I really like how it incorporates the idea of the pen (or in this case, the quill) being mightier than the sword, and refers to a verse that plays a big role in Raisa’s life.

If you want to know more about the book deal, you can read more here.  Can’t wait to share more news about it over the next year as it gets closer to publication time!

Books That Made Me: THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

So here’s the second in my little series, inspired by The Sweet Sixteens’ December #SixteensBlogAbout theme, “Favorite books and authors”.

Last week I wrote about the book that made me a book evangelist, Watership Down by Richard Adams, and I mentioned how Mrs. Whatley, my eighth-grade teacher, changed my life when she introduced me to the wide world of fantasy and science-fiction. Well, while my reading group was discussing Watership Down, I kept hearing snippets of discussion about the book the other reading group was working on, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was intrigued, so I read that one too, and enjoyed it.

The dog-eared copies I read every year as a teenager.

The dog-eared copies I read every year as a teenager.

That summer, I visited my sister and brother-in-law in California, and discovered that my brother-in-law is an avid Tolkien fan. When I mentioned enjoying The Hobbit, he had The Fellowship of the Ring in my hand before I even finished my sentence. (Thanks, Mike!) I spent days of that visit lolling about on the sheepskin rug in their den, lost in Middle-earth.

That Christmas, I got my own box set of the books, which I reread over every holiday break through the end of my college years and several times since.

When I love a book, I usually want to talk about it, to anyone who will listen. The Lord of the Rings was a bit different for me, and still is – this is not a book to be analyzed, but to be experienced. Maybe it was because I first read it at such a vulnerable, emotional time of my life – the summer before high school – but The Lord of the Rings is a book that feels like it belongs to me. Doesn’t matter that millions of other readers feel the same way about it – it’s mine.

You can tell me all about its flaws – it’s too long, it’s too high-falutin’, and as George R.R. Martin points out, it oversimplifies many of its themes.

The beautiful leather-bound copy I am currently reading aloud to my son.

The beautiful leather-bound copy I am currently reading aloud to my son.

Reading it again as an adult, I would add: the descriptions go on and on (and on), the female characters are distressingly one-note, and OMG, Mr. Tolkien, can we buy a comma?

But I still have an emotional connection to the story that cannot be denied. I cannot speak rationally about it, so don’t try to engage me in discussions of literary devices or technical merit. I know that, no matter how many times I read the book, I will come away from the last page sobbing great big bittersweet, satisfied tears at the image of Sam returning alone from the Grey Havens.

As a writer, I hope to have even a tenth of that emotional impact on my readers.

Books That Made Me: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams

This month’s #SixteensBlogAbout theme over at The Sweet Sixteens is “favorite books and authors”, so I decided to make this a little series celebrating some of the books and authors that have had the most impact on me as a person and as a writer.

First up, the book that made me a librarian, a booktalker, a book evangelist: Watership Down by Richard Adams.

book cover of Watership Down showing a rabbit in a golden field

Now, I had always loved to read. I was lucky to grow up in the kind of family where the joy of reading was understood, where a dictionary sat on a shelf in the kitchen in case a vocabulary question came up during dinner.  Where crossword puzzles were a group activity.  Where no one thought it was odd that you would bring a book with you to your aunt’s house on Thanksgiving and then disappear into an upstairs bedroom and read for a while when the conversation got too loud. And I read constantly as a kid, often rereading books that I only kind of liked, just to have something to read.

And then.

And then, my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Whatley, handed me Watership Down by Richard Adams. (It was in the midst of a fantasy and science fiction unit that pretty much blew my mind open wide and informed my reading – and writing – tastes from that time on.  Thank you, Mrs. Whatley.) Watership Down was the first richly detailed fantasy world that I absolutely lost myself in – it’s about rabbits! And they have their own language! And culture! And folklore!

It was the first book that I became a pusher for, telling anyone who would listen about how wonderful it was.

I remember the sense of power it gave me when my father borrowed my copy and read it too. Not power over, but power to. Power to influence another person, to share something that meant so much to me, to enrich someone else’s life a little by introducing that person to something amazing. It was that same impulse that led me to librarian career ten years later.

Books like this one are so special to me that I agonize over the right time to share them with my son. Do I read it aloud with him, or let him dive into the magic alone? And should I wait until he’s the same age I was when I read it? What if I give it to him too early, and he hates it because he’s not ready for it?

Maybe it shouldn’t matter so much. He’ll either like it or not. But your first book love is the most tender. (So if you have read Watership Down and didn’t care for it, don’t tell me, okay? I’d rather stay ignorant and still be friends with you. And if you haven’t read it yet, just…do.)

I love that I live in a world where you can google "silflay image" and find this.

I love that I live in a world where you can google “silflay image” and find this.

For me, Watership Down is the kind of story that will always be a part of me. Even now when I come home in the evening and find rabbits in my front yard, I still ask them if they are having a nice silflay.

 

 

 

Jumping In With Both Feet

I am officially the new PAL (Published and Listed) Member Coordinator for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  I’m a little nervous about balancing this post with running the Sweet Sixteens, getting two novels ready for publication, and oh, yeah, my day job, but I am so excited to be in a position to network with and impact programming for so many wonderful local authors!

Here’s the official announcement and an interview with me on the SCBWI MD/DE/WB blog.  (Bonus photo of my writing space at the link!)

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Guest Post from Celeste Lim: How I Got My Agent

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Today we’ll hear from author Celeste Lim, who shares her agent story as part of The Sweet Sixteens’ #SixteensBlogAbout November theme.  A Chinese born and raised in Malaysia, Celeste holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and an MA from Manhattanville College. She is represented by Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio and her debut middle-grade novel is forthcoming from Scholastic Press in spring 2016.

About Celeste’s book: In Medieval China, a girl is sold by her family to become a nursemaid and wife to a toddler husband. With the help of sentient creatures called jing, she discovers internal strength, and a destiny that is foretold to intertwine with her spirit guardian – a great, golden fox spirit.

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With the agenting process shrouded in so much mystery to aspiring writers, I feel my querying journey is crying out for a little step-by-step recount. Of course, everyone’s querying experience will be different, but for those who are thinking of approaching Rosemary Stimola, this might turn out helpful.

After two years of writing and revising the manuscript with the help of professors and critique partners, I began doing agent research in July of 2013. I sent out my emails in batches of ten, and my email to Rosemary went out on 7/7.

According to her website, no response within a week = pass, so I was prepared for silence. But Rosemary sent me a very nice note on 7/12 saying that she’d be happy to look at the manuscript. Until then, hers was only my second request for a full, so the email still got me pretty excited. After sending out the story that very same day, I was prepared for a long wait, and in the meantime received two more full requests.

Rosemary was one of the first to finish reading my manuscript, and I heard back from her assistant, Allison Remcheck on 7/31 – 2 weeks and 5 days. The email was long – too long to be a form rejection (that I was used to receiving by then), so my heart was stuck firmly in my throat as I read her email. There were really wonderful comments about how much they loved the story and what they liked about it, but 80% of the email talked about things that they felt needed more work. In short, they were asking for a non-contractual R&R (a revise and resubmit). I knew this didn’t guarantee an offer at the end, but I agreed to do it, because I could tell from the feedback that they really had a firm grasp of what the story was about, and knew exactly how to further bring out its potential. I figured that, even if they did not offer me representation at the end of the process, I would still come away with a better novel for my next round of queries.

So I slaved away at yet another revision, and on 9/17, emailed them back a novel that I knew at least I was happy with. Allison replied me on the same day telling me how excited she was to read the revision, but reminded me that I needed to keep the manuscript exclusive for them in the meantime. This condition put a damper on things, especially when another agent from an agency I was also excited to hear from had expressed an interest in the story a couple weeks later. But ultimately, I didn’t want to ruin my chances with Rosemary, so held back the urge to send her the revised manuscript and promised to do that when the exclusive period was over. So, during the waiting period, I was counting the days, hours, minutes, manically checking my inbox every chance I had. I was plagued with thoughts like, “They’d probably decide to pass in the end, and where would you be?” and “What if the other agent got tired of waiting?” and “What if they take months to get back to you?”

Well, it turned out I only had to wait a month. On 10/15, Allison got back to me with a very encouraging email – they were utterly enchanted by the revision. And as I continued to read, I was almost expecting a mention of the offer… but it didn’t come. Not in this email. According to Allison, the story still needed a few minor tweaks, and she kindly offered to discuss the details over the phone. I’ll be honest and tell you that I was a little disappointed at first, but told myself that if it wasn’t a rejection, it was definitely a good thing.

One of the main things I had to do in this revision was to cut the 91,000-word novel by about a third. It was a heartbreaking process. I had to kill so many of my darlings – those scenes that I really loved but had to admit didn’t feel as essential to the story as other parts. And on 10/28, I emailed Allison a condensed version of the story. Then it was back to the waiting, and somehow, going through this a second time felt worse than the first. I was impatient, I was restless, I was anxiety-ridden and frustrated. I forced myself to write and barely produced anything worth a second look. But there was nothing else to do besides distracting myself as much as possible. My lovely classmates and professors from The New School and Manhattanville were endlessly encouraging; my friends asked me out as much as possible; my family and church friends prayed fervently for me; it was a dreary period, but that was also when I realized how much support I had around me.

And then, finally, on 11/20, Allison gave me a call. Or should I say, THE call. It wasn’t as magical as I had envisioned a thousand times before (I answered the phone in the middle of a nap, all groggy and stuff), but the news still took my breath away.

“I’m happy to tell you that we’re ready to offer you representation.” was all it took, and I was up in the clouds after letting out an irrepressible squeal. Totally unprofessional. Then, sitting in front of the computer, hours later, I found myself going through the phone conversation over and over again like a sweet dessert you want to re-taste, and also wondering if the agent actually liked me enough to overlook my childish, obviously unprofessional squeal.

When I realized that my quest for an agent had finally come to an end, I couldn’t help pulling up the Excel sheet with my list of queried agents. Out of all the queries I sent, I received 4 requests for my manuscript and 37 rejections over a period of 5 months. I’ve been disappointed so many times, especially when rejected by agents who had requested fulls, but now I realize that in the end, it’s really true what they say: You only need that one agent who’s right for you and your book, and whoever doesn’t connect with it, isn’t right for it.

As a writer who’s never been published, I still can’t help attaching the ideas of fame and glory to getting published… it is especially more difficult when friends and family around you are feeding your imagination. But by now, I’ve met enough professional and solid writers to know that not everyone is going to make it to the Rowling-Peak, and those who write, write because of passion, and money and fame kind of becomes a by-product of that passion.

Looking back, the journey from beginning to end took close to 5 months, not too long at all compared to some other experiences I’ve heard of, so I admit, with a little pinch of salt, I probably could have had an easier time. Nevertheless, I feel the offer came at the best time possible – right before Thanksgiving. Now I have Rosemary, on top of all those wonderful things and people I already have, to be immensely thankful for.

 

Find Celeste Lim online at CelestePLlim.com