Discover more from Overthinking It
Learning how to fail, or reframing "failure"
What I've been working on this summer+ the pub date, description, and preorder links for my next middle grade novel, KEEPING PACE!
I had one main writing goal this summer, and I’m not going to achieve it.
My goal was to finish, revise, and polish a proposal for what I hope might be my sixth middle grade novel so that my agent could submit it to my editor. For me, a proposal generally means 50 pages plus a pitch and a detailed outline. And in mid June, when my kids finished school, I had already drafted 51 pages of a new project, plus I had a catchy description and what seemed like a pretty solid plot. Some of those pages were pretty rough, and I knew I would need to do at least one round of revision based on feedback from my critique group, and then possibly another round after I shared the proposal with my agent. But I figured I was in really good shape, and I might be able to check off that first goal before August and move on to another one!
But then a couple of things happened. First, I realized, with the help of my critique group, that one of the two point of view characters for this new story wasn’t working. Her name was Sophie, and her sections were bogged down in backstory. I was keeping her at too much of a distance from the reader, and her motivations didn’t ring true. The other POV character, who had honestly been a lot more fun to write, was much stronger and more fun to read—but the plot I was envisioning didn’t work without Sophie’s perspective.
The second thing that happened was that I got the opportunity to interview for a job teaching sixth grade language arts at my kids’ wonderful school. It felt like the right move at the right time for a lot of reasons, and I got the job and accepted it. I’m very excited (and nervous) to get back into the classroom after six years away! But I’ve needed to spend some of my limited summer work time preparing for the school year instead of writing.
So I had more work to do on the proposal than I’d anticipated and less time to do it in, but I still thought I’d be okay. I tried to re-envision Sophie, cutting down on the backstory, changing the setup, and giving her a passion that I thought would make her easier to connect to. In late July, I spent an energizing, productive long weekend at the Highlights Foundation, connecting with other writers, enjoying the beautiful scenery and delicious food, and writing, writing, writing.
I revised my outline and rewrote a new first chapter three times, trying everything I could think of to unlock Sophie 2.0’s voice. I wanted to get the opening of her story right—or, if not completely right, then right enough to move forward confidently, and when I left Highlights, I really thought I was on the right track.
But the day after I got home, it hit me that Sophie 2.0 still wasn’t working. I was still forcing things. I didn’t feel any excitement about writing the rest of her story. I had the sense that it would be a slog, every step of the way, and I knew that if I didn’t feel a real pull to this girl’s story, readers wouldn’t either.
In the past, I would have felt frustrated and defeated to realize I needed to scrap everything I’d done during my writing retreat and give up on the possibility of achieving my summer goal. I’d done everything I could to set myself up for success! I’d spent money on this dedicated writing time at Highlights! I’d figured out countless logistics to make sure my kids were all set without me and everything would go smoothly at home! I’d stayed up late and woken up early while I was there, squeezing in every extra moment to write, and all for nothing!
But it wasn’t for nothing, of course. I accomplished something important, writing all those pages I’m not going to use. I needed to carve out that dedicated writing and thinking time and give Sophie 2.0’s story my all, because that was the only way I was going to be able to accept that she still wasn’t the right character (at least right now) and let go of her, along with my initial vision for the novel. If I hadn’t given myself that time and brain space, it would have taken me a lot longer to come to that realization.
I have some ideas about where to go next with the parts of this project I love, but they’re preliminary, baby ideas, and I’m about to be consumed with the start of school, so it may me take a while to nurture them. I wish I had more summer left to figure it all out, but I feel mostly okay that I don’t. Scrapping what I wrote this summer and missing my goal doesn’t feel like a failure at this point in my writing career. It feels like its own kind of (admittedly anticlimactic) success—a necessary step in the process of finding my way to a story that I hope will be special enough that I want to write it, even when it’s hard. A story that I hope will be special enough that readers will want to read it, even in a crowded and difficult middle grade market.
KEEPING PACE details!
And all those musings about my summer writing bring me to some news about a book I have already written, which I think is very special! I’m happy to share the official description, publication date, and preorder information for my next novel, Keeping Pace, which, appropriately enough, is about a very ambitious girl learning how to “fail”—and questioning what “success” and “failure” really mean.
Keeping Pace also took me a while to figure out in the early drafting stages, but I’m glad I took my time to get to the heart of these characters and their story because I LOVE this book, and I hope you’ll love it as much as I do! It comes out April 9, 2024, and you can find all the details and pre-order links here. You can also add it on Goodreads. We’re waiting on the official cover, but for now, here’s the description:
A poignant middle-grade novel about friends-turned-rivals training for a half-marathon—and rethinking what it means to win and what they mean to each other
Grace Eller has spent most of middle school working toward one goal: beating her former friend Jonah Perkins’s GPA so she can be the best student in her class. But when Jonah beats her for eighth grade top scholar and then announces he’s switching schools for ninth grade, it feels like none of Grace’s academic accomplishments have really mattered. They weren’t enough to win—or to impress her dad. And the summer looms over her head. With nothing planned and no more goals or checklists, she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be working toward.
Eager for a chance to even the score with Jonah, she signs up for the Labor Day half-marathon that she and Jonah used to talk about running together someday. Maybe if she can beat Jonah on race day, she’ll feel OK again. But as she begins training with Jonah and checking off a new list of summer goals, she starts to expand her ideas of what—and who—really matters.
Engaging and heartfelt, Keeping Pace is about wanting to win at all costs—and having to learn how to fail.
Book recommendations and closing thoughts:
This feels like a big moment of change for me. My younger kid is starting kindergarten and will be in full-day school for the first time ever. I’m going back to full-time teaching for the first time in six years. So many things feel different in publishing in general, and in the middle grade space specifically, than they have in the past.
One of the best books I’ve read this summer is Anica Mrose Rissi’s new middle grade novel, Wishing Season, which is very much about change and seasons and loss and new beginnings. It’s heartbreaking, but also very funny and full of hope. It moved me so deeply—I read almost all of it and then held off on finishing the last eighth of the book or so, because I knew the change that was coming at the end of the book was necessary and beautifully earned, but I wasn’t quite ready to bear it. But eventually I finished, and the ending was wonderful. I also re-read Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, which is such a masterpiece. Brilliant, ambitious, enlightening, and also fun. It’s part of the curriculum I’ll be teaching, and I’m excited to share it with kids and pull in other great books that also balance past and present storylines, like Saadia Faruqi’s Yusef Azeem Is Not a Hero, Christine Day’s I Can Make This Promise, Brandy Colbert’s The Only Black Girls in Town, Jenn Bishop’s upcoming Free Throws, Friendship, and Other Things We Fouled Up, and more.
Speaking of change, I love writing this newsletter, but each essay takes me a long time, and I’m about to have a lot on my plate, work-wise. I’ll definitely write again when the cover for Keeping Pace is finalized, and then whenever inspiration hits and time allows! But I have a feeling that, by necessity, this newsletter will become less monthly-ish and more occasional. Or maybe I will figure out a much shorter way to share my thoughts on a monthly basis with occasional longer editions. I’ve been loving Sarah Dessen’s Friday Five, and maybe there’s a shortier, listier format I can find my own take on for some of the time. If you have any ideas or input, let me know. Thanks for reading, as always, and I’ll leave you with this photo of a path at Highlights, which I hiked while imagining Grace and Jonah running.