My heart swelled as I entered the auditorium filled with 200 fifth graders.
I grabbed the microphone and asked, “From the time I started writing until the time I published my first book, how long do you think it took?”
Hands shot in the air.
“Definitely three years,” the boy in the front row wearing the Boston Celtics jersey said.
The kids stomped out a drumroll. And then I told them it took fifteen years.
The space filled with wide eyes and gasps and lots of no-ways!
I love writing more than I hate rejection
My path to yes was long and winding. Finding Perfect was my first book to be published, but that story about a girl with undiagnosed OCD was actually the fifth one I’d written. And here’s a secret, the first book I ever wrote was back in 2001 and it is coming out in 2023! It’s called Hidden Truths. Let’s hear it for perseverance!
A student once asked me why I kept going after all those years of rejections. It was a fair question. A mountain of no’s had accrued in those fifteen years. I had to think about it.
Why had I kept going?
I realized that I love writing more than I hate rejection.
I also realized that rejection didn’t define me. I was a writer because I wrote. Not because some person thought my work was good enough to be published.
I shared this with the kids in the auditorium. I wanted them to know that rejection at my age feels the same as it does at theirs. Being told my writing isn’t good enough, feels the same as not making the team, not being cast in the play, or not being invited to the party. I wanted them to know that I understand how it feels to want something badly and not get it. How it feels to be passed over.
But I also wanted them to know that rejection doesn’t define them. Only they can define their worth. And that is one power they should never give away. It is theirs. To cherish. To own. To value.
I want them to dream big and find the thing they love so much that no and not yet and rejection doesn’t knock them off their path. And that thing they are passionate about, doesn’t even have to be what they are good at today. It just has to be the thing they love enough to keep going.
Then I confessed. When I was their age, I was not a good writer. I was just a kid who loved to write because it made me happy. And that was enough.
And it’s still enough.
The secret sauce
I write from that place of true authenticity. The place that sees my soul, knows my fears, and tugs on my heart.
To write from that space, I have to do the deep dive emotionally. I believe that is the secret sauce in any book. Finding, embracing, and sharing emotional resonance.
So how do we access it on the page?
First, I need to follow Autumn’s lead in Dear Student and find my Fearless Fred –the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around. Then I leap! For me, all of the emotions in my books are mine. The ones I’m proud of, like love, happiness, pride, and the ones I’m working on like anxiety, anger, and worry. We all feel all the feels. So, it’s important that the characters in my books do as well.
For instance, in Dear Student, Autumn’s dad leaves the family to volunteer for the Peace Corps. Now, neither of my parents bailed on our family for a job, but my mom died way too young. And that hurt, longing, desperation that Autumn feels for her dad to come back is mine. All mine. I would do anything for one more moment with my mom, to hear her voice, hold her soft hands, or smell her jasmine perfume. I tapped into my emotional reservoir to create a moment in Autumn’s story that felt authentic and real.
Because it is authentic and real.
And then there are the emojis.
I use emojis when I write. Yep, not joking here. Once I finish my first draft of my story – that I fondly call Swiss Cheese – because it stinks and has lots of holes – I use emojis to help ensure that my character’s journey has the all-important emotional resonance. I put an emoji at the opening and close of each chapter. What’s the emotion going into the moment and what is the emotion coming out? If it’s all happy, well, I have just created the world’s longest greeting card. And if it’s all sad, no one wants to read that. Emojis cue me visually to ensure that my characters, like my readers, feel all the feels.
An emotional connection to the stories I write is what kept me going through years of rejection. And it’s what keeps me going now. I love the way the words on the page make me feel. I love how my characters tell me their secrets. And I love when the stories I write connect emotionally with my readers.
In a recent interview about Dear Student, Lorie Barber, Education Director at Anderson’s Bookshops called my books a “toolkit for kids’ hearts.”
That is a gift.
That is a full heart circle.
And that is why I write.
Elly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. She grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, studied psychology at Boston University, and received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Elly is the author of 5 contemporary middle grade novels. Finding Perfect, Smart Cookie, Give and Take, Dear Student and Hidden Truths (coming 2023) Connect with Elly at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, on Instagram @ellyswartzbooks, or on her web series #BooksintheKitchen with author Victoria J. Coe.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Dear Student by Elly Swartz. Many thanks to Penguin Random House for donating a copy of the book to one of our commenters.
- For a chance to win this copy of Dear Student, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, May 8th at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 12th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
- If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SWARTZ. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Congratulations to Maureen Young Ingram whose commenter number was chosen to win this giveaway.