Welcome to the Q&A for the June edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
This month I’m talking with novelist Samantha M. Clark. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, will be published later this month by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. Samantha is also the regional advisor of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
(Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of Austin SCBWI my entire career, and through the chapter I’ll be teaching two online classes — here and here — next month.))
The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast is a lyrical adventure story with, at its center, an unconventional mystery: Who is the titular boy (he himself doesn’t know), how did he get to the island where he is now, and how will he get home, wherever that may be?
In its review of Samantha’s book, School Library Journal says, “With a sharp focus on the isolated protagonist and his internal struggle, it is character development that shines most clearly, though the external environmental dangers and the mystery keep the suspense taut.”
If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the winner of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on June 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Samantha M. Clark.
Chris: Young readers often want to know how long it takes to write a book, and I find that there’s typically both a short answer and a long one to that seemingly simple question. So: In your experience, how long does it take to write a book?
Samantha: Hahaha I’m not sure there is a short answer to this question, unless it’s: It depends.
Writing a book is like making a friend. Some friends open up immediately and you feel like you know everything about that person really quickly; other friendships build over time, and you might discover something new about that person years after you meet.
For example, the first draft of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast took about six months for me to write, and it wasn’t an easy draft to complete. I floundered through a lot of it, not knowing where the story should go next. I would basically say, let’s try this… and see what would happen. It wasn’t until I got to the end of that draft and I wrote that final scene — which is pretty much the same in the final book — that I truly understood what the boy’s journey was and why I was writing it.
I then had to go back to the beginning and revise with that in mind. I did around nine or ten revisions, each time getting to know the boy and his story a bit more, before I signed with my agent, then another two or three with her before it went on submission to editors. Then I did another big revision while it was on submission, and that’s the one that sold.
With my editor, I did a few more smaller revisions before it went to copy edits, and I even changed a few lines and one small section in the final passes before the book went to press. All that took about seven and a half years, but between those revisions I wrote and revised four more novels. Phew! So how long does it take to write a book? My answer is: As long as the story needs.
Chris: Four other novels, on top of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast? That’s a whole lot of work, on top of your efforts these past few years as a regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. How have those two time-consuming pursuits — that inward-facing work of advancing your own writing, and that outward focus of supporting scores of others in advancing their own creative work — fed into and reinforced each other?
Samantha: Yes, writing is definitely inward-facing, because until the story is on paper — digital or print ;) — you are the only one who can live it. You’ll have critique partners and maybe an agent or editor who’ll read drafts and make suggestions, but only you know whether you’ve fully achieved what you see in your head. Only you can invent the world, breathe life into the characters, and grow this story through first draft, and revision and more revisions.
It’s kind of like playing singles tennis, where you might have your team of coaches and sponsors and fans behind you, but when it comes down to it, you’re the only one on your side of the net — in the good times and the bad. So that’s why it’s so important to have other people who support you.
Aside from my husband and family, I found those people with organizations like SCBWI and the Writers’ League of Texas. I’m generally a shy person, so volunteering was a great way for me to meet people and I jumped in with small jobs. But my last five years as the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of SCBWI has been especially valuable to me.
I took the position on the encouragement of friends who thought I’d do a good job, but I quickly realized that I was going to get out of it far more than I put in. I’ve met amazing people within our close to 330-member chapter; I’ve been able to learn and network with the speakers I’ve brought in to teach others; and the generous thank yous I’ve received from our members helped me feel a lot less of a failure when I received rejections for my manuscripts.
That old “do unto others…” guidance really is the best advice. I feel good every time I recommend a book by a friend, or share their good news, and I’m propped up by the feeling of accomplishment for every event I organize that goes off well.
Sadness and feelings of not being good enough tend to fester, dig into our hearts and spawn when we’re alone and spend too much time inward-facing. But when we’re looking out, inspired by those around us, and allowing them to lift us up with hope in our darkest moments, we will achieve as well.