I signed up for ChaBooCha in March 2019 because early chapter books were a completely new genre for me and I felt clueless about how to do it. I had brought up the idea of writing chapter books to my editor several years ago and she steered me away, saying it couldn’t be a stand-alone book, had to be a series, etc. I thought, she doesn’t think I can do it, and I need to keep writing historical fiction if I want to keep paying my bills.
But this time when I brought it up, she immediately said I should give it a try. She put together a package for me and mailed it: two middle grade novels and two early chapter books (to help me figure out the difference, I presume). She told me to read as many recently published early chapter books as I could. I thought, she’s as tired of starvation, political intrigue and massacres as I am.
When I first started writing in the late 1980’s, there were books to read and conferences to attend and writer’s groups to become part of. In 2019 there was the internet! There were websites, podcasts, discussion boards, and of course, ChaBooCha with its informational and inspirational posts and the feeling of being part of a group.
Each day I read the posts from the other folks who were doing the same thing as I was: trying to find writing time in the midst of a busy life, trying to keep the self-doubt at bay, trying to make a story come alive on paper—or actually, make it come alive on a screen, as this was the first time I was writing a book on the computer rather than by hand in a spiral ring notebook.
As I read the posts by the other participants I became aware of the fact that many of these writers were at the beginning of their careers. This brought back a flood of memories. These writers were in the wanting, learning, striving, yearning part of the writing life. They were at that dangerous stage where frustration and despair can creep in and make a writer give up (oh, the times I quit in order to just pout for a while!). They were also at the hopeful stage, where the sky is the limit and dreams are mostly out ahead. The phrase “beginner’s mind” kept coming to me. What was I to learn from these memories and feelings that were flooding back?
Wikipedia defines Shoshin as “a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind.’ It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.” Openness, eagerness, lack of preconceptions—isn’t that the beauty of the way it all felt at the beginning? Isn’t this the heart of the way children are, and the reason we are drawn to their energy, the reason we want to be with them by writing for them?
It took me eight years of working really hard before I got my first New York publishing contract. I used to watch for the mail, and when a package came from a publisher, I’d take it and close myself in the bathroom so the rest of the family wouldn’t see me cry if it was another rejection letter, which it normally was.
One year on my birthday I threw the I Ching about my writing. It came up hexagram 29, The Abysmal (“Darn straight this is abysmal!” I said.) Actually, The Abysmal referred to water following its path through an abyss, it has no choice but to flow where the abyss guides it. That felt very true. I had to write, I had to take each rejection as it came, I had to keep learning and trying. But what I had thrown in the I Ching had a change in it – the change was from The Abysmal to something like a tower up on a hill that was looked up to, and influence born of contemplation (I think it was hexagram 20, Viewing, looking up). I certainly couldn’t image anything like that at the time.
And so it has all come to pass, the way the I Ching said it would, with success following the time in the abyss. Now I’m somewhere on that hill. But for this latest project of trying to write an early chapter book, I took my walking stick in my hand and walked down the hill. I looked into the water flowing in the abyss and dangled my feet in it. Ahhh, into the abyss again. The story will flow where it will, I will be eager and open and hold no preconceptions. We will see what happens.
I’m liking the idea of staying in touch with beginner’s mind, in all areas of life, hopefully forever. It’s the way my grandkids view everything at ages 6 and 7. It’s the way I was about writing thirty years ago.
What would I say to these writers who are at the beginning now? Stay excited. Decide each day that you don’t know anything and that you’ll find out as the day goes on. Keep reading books that are successful and as you do, try not to be jealous of the authors. Keep learning, keep honing your craft. Please don’t give up on traditional publishing, it still works even though it can seem absolutely impossible to break into for a long time. If you are in the abyss, go with the flow. When the change happens and it’s time for you to climb up out of the water, dripping wet, and walk up the hill, you’ll know it. And it’ll be a blast.
Elisa Carbone is the author of Poison in the Colony: James Town 1622 (Viking, 2019), Blood on the River: James Town 1607 (Viking, 2006, Winner of the Virginia Jefferson Cup Award), Stealing Freedom (Knopf, 1998) and a dozen other books including picture books, middle grade and YA novels. She is now trying to write a couple of humorous early chapter books that involve two third grade protagonists, some math, some science, and a lot of pets. You can find out more about her work at www.elisacarbone.com.
Eliza has generously offered today's give-away which is a copy of her book Night Running: How James Escaped With the Help of His Faithful Dog by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by E.B. Lewis. If you are already a signed-up member of the challenge, all you need to do to be entered for the drawing for this prize is comment on this blog post. The winner will be selected by a random number generator on March 31st at noon.