Friday, September 28, 2012

Guest Post: How I Became a Writer (Erin Cashman)

I’ve written for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, I sat on my perch high up in our maple tree (much to my mother’s displeasure!) and wrote stories and poems. It has always been my dream to be a published author. I majored in English at Bates College, where I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. My favorite class was Creative Writing.

Following graduation, my father encouraged me to go to law school, so that I could support myself. I took his advice, and stopped writing anything except legal briefs and memos for several years, always knowing I’d go back to writing one day. When my kids were little, I took a couple of creative writing classes at night. And then one night I had the strangest dream about a family of vampires. I just had to write it down. I finished it a year later, and sent it off to agents and publishers, certain I would realize my dream and become an author.

Boy was I wrong.

After Twilight, romance vampire stories were in demand, not middle-grade adventure ones.

But several editors asked for the full manuscript after reading a sample, and were very encouraging. I asked one what I could do to improve the novel, and she told me to re-read a book that I loved (so as not to be swept up in the story!) and really pay attention to the voice, the descriptions, the story arc, and the characters. I did. I underlined the book, wrote notes in the margin, and folded down pages.

I wrote another book, and suffered through many more rejections. And then I had the idea for The Exceptionals. It’s about a teenage girl who must use her ability to communicate with animals to unravel the mystery behind the disappearances of the most talented students at Cambial Academy, a school for teens with special abilities. Since much of my book takes place in the woods, I went outside with my pen and notebook, and like my protagonist, Claire, sat down on a rock and observed what I saw, heard and smelled. The colors and sounds were different than what I had thought. In the morning I jotted down what the sunrise looked like (my children get up much too early for school!). I was surprised to discover that in winter months I often saw vibrant bands of violet at the horizon -- rarely did I see the pinks and oranges I saw in my mind’s eye. I paid attention to storms and the way the clouds moved. Every observation went in a 3 ring notebook I dedicated just to writing.

As I wrote, I worked on avoiding the same old tired expressions. Once I did that, I started to notice how other authors described things. As I came across a phrase or description that was beautiful or interesting, I stopped and tried to come up with my own unique way to express it – which I scribbled down in the notebook.

After a few months I had a first draft of The Exceptionals. As I labored through the edits, I kept my notebook next to my laptop. I referenced it often. Every time I used a word too often, or I relied on clich├ęs, I turned to my notebook. And when I thought I was finished, I read the entire manuscript out loud. It’s amazing how many mistakes I caught! And it really helped with dialogue. I want all my characters to speak beautiful, proper English. Unfortunately, people don’t speak like that!

I sent The Exceptionals out to about ten agents and editors, but this time I had no expectation that it would be published. A couple of weeks later I got a call from an agent, Erica Silverman from the great literary agency, Trident, offering to represent me, and the very next day Pam Glauber, a very talented editor at Holiday House, called and made an offer to buy the novel! Two years later, I was a published author.

Even now, when I read a book, I keep my green notebook handy, and a pen to scribble in the pages. When I write, it is next to my laptop (along with an ample supply of chocolate!). It is the single most important thing I did to improve my writing.

About Erin:

Erin grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bates College in Maine and from Boston College Law School. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three children, and their dog.
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About The Exceptionals:

Born into a famous family of exceptionally talented people, 15-year-old Claire Walker has deliberately chosen to live an average life. But everything changes the night of the Spring Fling, when her parents decide it's high time she transferred to Cambial Academy--the prestigious boarding school that her great-grandfather founded for students with supernatural abilities.

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