Are You At The Helm Of Your Writing Success?
About the Author: Clare Di Liscia
Born in Queens, New York, Clare Di Liscia moved to California as a small child and grew up in the hills by Dodger Stadium. After traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean, Clare attended KU Leuven in Belgium to study Dutch and French.
Clare graduated from Cal State Northridge Film School, and in 2006, she placed in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. After joining SCBWI, Clare won first place HM in the Sue Alexander for her YA novel, now titled Neliem — released from Month9Books in May 2019.
When you decide to be an author, you will encounter strangers, people you consider friends, and even family who will — with the best intentions — gasp, “you should focus on your kids” or “that ship has sailed.” I’m here to tell you that ship, your ship, is docked in the harbor. It only needs three things to get you to the write destination: a captain, a fierce wind, and a push.
Who is your Captain?
What is that magical element that gets your work in the right hands? Is it luck? Is it years-long revisions?
Maybe you walk into a writing conference and trip on the rug, causing the first draft of your picture book about WWI from an extraterrestrial point-of-view to fly into the lap of a New York agent. Before you get up, the agent flings a contract into your arms. You sign on the dotted line with the chocolate covered stirrer from the agent’s espresso martini.
Okay, that never happens. To achieve writing success, you must separate this dream of being a “real writer” from reality.
What does a captain do? Dream? Lay out in the sun soaking up rays of wishful thinking? No, the Captain has a plan: a steadfast course to weather the storms and sail smoothly to his destination. Case in point: what have you been writing lately? Or rather, have you?
Are you one of those people who has a half dozen unfinished manuscripts begging to be completed in your saved files? The ones we like to read after a hard day? Or do you have a completed, revised, and properly formatted WIP — one that’s maybe, just maybe, ready for a professional critique at a writing conference?
Have you dared to share at a local critique group? Are you a member of any writing association such as AWP, SFWA, SCBWI, or RWA? Do you attend writing conferences? Writers’ retreats or workshops?
Which books on craft line your bookshelves? For that matter, what’s your book count on Goodreads this year? Last year? Do you frequent your local library? Attend author visits? You should; it’s absolutely free and a wonderful resource for anyone aspiring to get published.
Answer these questions and become the captain of your writing career. Don’t wait for luck or a personal reference from a friend already published or a response from mass queries to agents you’ve never met. You should have something that makes you tingle with excitement when it is read out loud, something worthy to bear your name. Set the course for success based on hard work, good writing, and determination.
What is your FIERCE WIND?
Your fierce wind is the burning desire to say something only you can say. Once again, the question is how you do this. How do you write a book that takes readers out of this world, urging them to feel things they have never once experienced?
Memories hold one key, with the power to trigger a range of emotions from joy to fear to anger. Sensory awareness can also trigger strong memories left dormant for years: the brush of leaves scraping against a windowpane on the day you heard your grandmother died, a salty breeze carrying a hint of the smoke from a fire that wiped out your neighborhood months ago...
In seventh grade, I had my first crush, a long-haired blond boy who flirted with me across several rows of seats. He never approached me directly. Eventually, I associated the longing of first love with the scent of the body lotion I wore at the time, a fragrant cucumber aroma so distinct I didn’t come across it for years.
When I did, the same sensations as before coursed through my body. My heart started fluttering and goosebumps rolled down my arms. Now combine that with a visual.
Since my early childhood, a disturbing image has stuck in my head. My father spoke only occasionally about his own childhood. So seldom did he share that when he did his words were cemented into my brain. The image was of my father running home from school as children threw rocks at him. It’s a true story.
As a boy, my father was a foreigner living on an island where the local citizens hated him. Compounded with invasion, starvation, and frequent night bombings that had him scrambling for the closest bunker for safety, it was more trauma than any seven-year-old should ever have to endure. Through it all, my father never fought back. He endured.
Now, I’ve recalled two separate but profound emotional recollections. One happened to me — the blond boy with beautiful eyes — and one happened to my father. I couldn’t go back in time and tell that beautiful boy I liked him any more than I could rewrite my father’s story. But I could write my own story.
The image of a boy running for his life became Oriana. Strong. Stubborn. The fiercest girl in her village — the one no boy wants. A warrior taught to fight by a dying boy with a magical dagger. Everything in Oriana’s world tells her one thing: love for her is impossible.
After using memory to devise Oriana, I thought about my first crush, the blond boy. In Oriana’s world, he doesn’t fade away. He becomes Ezra, the only boy brave enough to claim a girl that would knock him unconscious rather than show weakness. With these two powerful memories, my novel Neliem was born.
What is your PUSH?
The push is your inner soul combatting the negativity you’ve stored since childhood: the whisper that you’re not pretty, not smart, not skinny, not talented enough to succeed. The push fights those thoughts that publishing is too saturated for you to success, that it’s impossible to get published.
Your finished manuscript won’t publish itself. That dream agent or editor you’ve fantasized about landing — the one you’ve perhaps heard at conferences — isn’t going to email you or drop by for coffee. The push is taking yourself out of your comfort zone and doing the hard work. Seeking feedback. Seeking opportunity.
In 2013, I went to a writers’ retreat. On the last day, we all had an opportunity to read our first page. The tension was palpable in the room as we lined up one-by-one to pour out our souls. I read my first page, and one of the toughest critics gave me her opinion on Neliem.
In short, she not only disliked my book but called it a rip-off of The Hunger Games in front of the entire retreat. I can laugh now because Neliem bears no similarities to The Hunger Games (a great book, but already written). After this critic shared, a second agent offered me a cutting remark. Afterwards, the girl who had been my roommate refused to maintain eye contact in case she contaminated herself with my bad mojo.
At first, it was devastating — but then something wonderful happened. An acquaintance in charge of the retreat took a moment to share that he thought my first page contained some good imagery. He challenged me to go home and rewrite the first pages 50 times. Then two of the senior advisors at the retreat came up and told me they disagreed with those agents, that they felt I had something.
So, what did I do? Stop going to conferences? Stop writing altogether? No. I went home and wrote and wrote. I read Neliem out loud. I sang it in the shower. My children ran from me every time I started reciting my book. “Mom’s at it again!” was a near constant echo through my home.
The entire experience pushed me to take a leap and submit that same manuscript for the following year’s SCBWI’s Writers’ Retreat Contest. This time it won first place HM in the Sue Alexander in the same year the contest received a record-breaking 1,000 submissions. At the same place, just the year before, I’d been crushed.
My contest win led to a leading Scholastic editor falling in love with Neliem. After months of trying, she couldn’t acquire it, but her love for the book tipped the first domino that eventually led me to land the right editor for the world of Neliem, Georgia McBride.
I encourage you to become the captain of your own writing destiny. At the helm of your career, all it takes is a fierce wind to write the story that is burning in your heart and a push to drive you out of our comfort zone, forcing you to face the storm of fears holding you back. I wish all of you success in your journeys.