How I Wrote My Pirate Book

When I’m trying to keep things short and sweet, I tell people that I started writing the first draft of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in February 2011. I finished the first draft in June, right before I graduated from my MFA program, and that draft became my graduate thesis. After that came a couple rounds of revision, feedback from my trusty writing friends, and a whirlwind of sending the manuscript out in a wobbly, excited sort of way to agents and then to editors. It’s a nice, straightforward short story–and it’s pretty much true.

The whole truth, however, is a little more complicated and a little more scary. But I think it’s an even better story in the end.

In the not-as-short, not-as-sweet version of this story, I wrote the first 15 pages of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic in May 2010. My husband had just broken his wrist, and I was assigned the job of driving him to his doctor’s appointments as he got his x-rays taken and his splint adjusted. This meant that I got to spend a good amount of time in the waiting room, which didn’t have Wi-Fi and didn’t have any decent magazines; in other words, it was the perfect place to write. And I needed to write something new. I was actually working on a completely different novel at the time, a YA fantasy that I called The Lighthouse Book. (I usually call MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT “The Pirate Book.” I’m not that great at titles.) I was about 100 pages into The Lighthouse Book and ridiculously excited about it–my advisor loved it! I loved it! It was going to be my first book! But I needed to write 15 pages of something new for an upcoming grad school workshop, and I figured I might as well write something fun and goofy.

This is probably a good place to mention that I have always loved pirates.

I’d had a half-formed idea for a pirate book bouncing around in my head for a few months, and I’d even jotted down a paragraph about it in my Story Ideas file. Here it is, verbatim:

a girl who tries to enroll in Piracy, but the admissions office refuses her application and instead forwards it to Young Ladies’ Finishing School. told partially in letters, postcards, ads, business cards, magazine clippings. imaginary world, very humorous.

If any of you have read MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in its latest form, you’ll know that this half-formed idea still pretty much describes the current version of the book. It wasn’t a lot to go on for a first draft, but I had a deadline to meet and a whole lot of free time in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic, so I knocked out those first 15 pages and sent them off to my workshop group.

At this point, something great/horrifying happened. My workshop group liked the book! They wanted to know what happened next! They had brilliant ideas for the story, and they made me desperate to work on it immediately. People started asking me how The Pirate Book was coming along.

The horrifying part was that it wasn’t coming along. It was only a workshop exercise, after all, and I’d set those 15 pages aside to work on my one true love, The Lighthouse Book. But no one ever really asked me about The Lighthouse Book. People seemed to like it well enough… but The Pirate Book, well, that was what they wanted to hear about. I started to feel a little defensive about The Lighthouse Book. It was my shy and awkward first child, lurking in the shadows. Surely, once more people read it, they’d all be asking me about it instead.

I ignored the signs. I charged through to the end of The Lighthouse Book. 200-and-some pages later, and a full five years after I’d begun it, I had a first draft I was proud of. My first book! I imagined what the cover might look like. I imagined reading it aloud in bookstores. At the beginning of my final semester of grad school, I presented The Lighthouse Book to my advisor. I figured we’d spend the semester polishing it up, and by the time graduation rolled around, I’d be sending it out into the world.

I’m going to pause here to laugh hysterically.

My advisor, Martine Leavitt, is a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant person. At the end of January, she sent me a letter. She had read The Lighthouse Book. And–she said all this in the kindest and most tactful way possible–she just didn’t think it was going to work. If I wanted to fix its fatal flaws, I would probably have to find a new plot.

Martine said she’d be happy to work with me to completely revamp this story. But I’d also worked with her that winter on prewriting and brainstorming for The Pirate Book–maybe I’d like to work on that story instead?

At this point, I took a (short) break from writing. I called my mom–always a wise strategy in times of crisis. She suggested that I could always go to law school if the writing thing didn’t work out. And at that moment, I knew I’d do whatever it took to be a writer, ’cause there was no way on Earth I was going to law school.

As I was nursing my wounds, I reread one of my favorite books in the world, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. And I remembered for the millionth time why I wanted to write. I wanted to write books like that, books that readers could sink into over and over again when the rest of the world got tough. I wanted to write books that made readers laugh, books that kids would adore and dive into again as adults. As painful as it was to hear the truth about The Lighthouse Book, I knew that Martine was right–it just didn’t work. And even worse, I didn’t have the energy for it anymore. I wanted to do something new, something joyful and playful and funny that would remind me why I was writing in the first place. So I wrote back to Martine and said I wanted to get started on that pirate book.

I wrote MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in 4 months flat. The process wasn’t all joyful or easy–but a lot of times, it was both. It’s a book of my heart, and a book that I couldn’t have written if I hadn’t charged through other drafts of other books first. I don’t know if The Lighthouse Book will ever see the light of day; I still haven’t come up with a strategy for refurbishing it, and as much as I’d like to work on it again, other projects have come along and demanded my creative energy. Still, as hard as it was to abandon that manuscript, I’m so glad I was able to do it. It gave me a chance to write the book I’d needed to write the whole time–and it taught me all sorts of things that ultimately made MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT stronger than it would have been otherwise. No book is a wasted experience; every composted draft is fertilizer for the small green tendrils of plot that come after it.

Anyway, that’s how I wrote my pirate book. It’s not the book I expected to publish first, but it sums up nearly everything I’ve learned so far about writing and about life: Have fun, and pursue your dreams fiercely, with a sword by your side and a gargoyle in your bag.

My writing room: a virtual tour

We just moved into this house a few months ago, and one of my favorite things about it is that it is bigger than a breadbox. Not much bigger, admittedly, but it does have a spare room. A room that I have conquered in battle and claimed for my very own.

Actually, my husband was wonderful and allowed me to claim this room without any sort of battle. But I would have drawn my sword for this room, if sword-drawing had been necessary, since it is now my writing room. It’s the very first place I’ve had all to myself, entirely for the purpose of writing. And it is pretty great.

Maybe someday I’ll post photos of my writing room, but for now I’ll try to describe it in words. I’m a writer, and writers are big fans of describing things in words–and also, I can’t remember where my camera is. Oh well. Anyway, imagine you are sitting in a big squashy chair. The chair is squashy because it’s basically a foam-filled beanbag covered with suspiciously green corduroy fabric. It’s not the most attractive chair in the world, but it’s super comfy, which is why you are sitting in it in the corner of your writing room when there is a perfectly good (and much more attractive) desk chair a few feet away. From the supreme comfort of your squashy green chair, here are a few of the things you might see:

* My desk, strictly speaking, is not a desk. It is a dining table from IKEA. In our tiny old apartment, it actually was a dining table/kitchen island, which means that it has some strange dents and scratches in the surface that most writers’ desks do not have. (At least, I assume that most writers haven’t attacked their desks with kitchen knives.) But it’s a good size and a friendly light-wood color, and most importantly, it is much smaller than my actual desk, which we couldn’t fit through the door of my writing room. My real desk is a gorgeous behemoth that’s currently pretending to be a dining room sideboard until we move to a place with bigger doors. I’m starting to worry that my pieces of furniture will develop severe identity crises.

* My desk chair is not green, nor is it squashy. It is quite fancy and high-tech, a graduation gift from my parents. It does all sorts of magical things to my lumbar, whatever that is.

*My Thanksgiving cactus perches on one corner of my desk. It’s from a local farm here in western Pennsylvania, and it is smart enough to bloom every Thanksgiving, even though Thanksgiving falls on a different date each year. I can never remember when Thanksgiving is–but the cactus knows! Perhaps that’s because it lives right under my giant wall calendar. Since it’s almost Thanksgiving, the cactus is in full hot-pink bloom right now.

*My giant stack of books and stuff is an ever-changing exhibit on my desk, consisting currently of Cheryl Klein’s book about writing and editing, Second Sight; Sarah Prineas’ middle-grade fantasy The Magic Thief: Found; two printed-out and marked-up drafts of my own novel in progress; and a handful of letters and cards from friends.

*My windowsill is pretty boring, for the most part, but it does frame my window, which has a lovely view of golden-leaved trees. In a few more days, it’ll have a lovely view of bare trees and the neighbors’ backyard. The other cool thing about my windowsill is that it’s home to a penguin (a handmade gift from friends the day before my wedding) and a pirate (another gift from a different friend). Since I’m writing pirate books these days, I often turn to my pirate for inspiration. He is a little unbalanced, so sometimes he falls off the windowsill and into the pencil jar below. I keep my empty grog bottle far across the room so the pirate won’t get any ideas.

*Over here by the squashy chair is my bookshelf filled with books! Half of them are writing-craft books and style manuals; the other half are reference books about weird subjects I’ve needed to learn about for stories–like lighthouses and magic and pirates and fairy tales. There’s also another penguin over here, along with a Dala horse from a trip to Sweden and a mermaid that used to belong to my grandmother (I think).

Other things worth mentioning in my writing room include my guitar (which is wearing my MFA hood from Vermont College), a poster of me as an ’80s video game hero, and a big box of books from my lovely publisher, HarperCollins. There is also an ugly carpet with a strange and unpredictable smell, but it’s best not to think about it.

Despite the unpredictable smell, the narrow door, and the tipsy pirate, I wouldn’t trade my writing room in for the tiny sofa where I used to write in our tiny old apartment. But I shouldn’t be too harsh on the tiny sofa or the tiny apartment, since that’s where I wrote my first book. So far, the writing room has seen some editing action, some tweeting, and the composition of an entire blog post, but I’m looking forward to the first book born in this room. I hope it’ll be a good one.