Mentor/Protégé

This is a Thinking Through Our Fingers classic, originally shared on November 29, 2011.

Photo by Casey McFarland, iamcasey.com

I have been reading children’s literature all my life. It’s only been the last two years that I’ve started trying to write it. I consider myself an experienced reader and a beginning writer. Because of this, I’ve developed a mentor/protégé relationship . . . with myself.

I imagine it’s a pretty common occurrence.

“You’re a genius!” says the mentor in me. “This book is destined to become a classic!”

And the writer smiles and types furiously while the muse is still nearby.

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But soon (sometimes within minutes), the mentor has changed her tune.

“This book is garbage. You’ll never amount to anything as a writer. Your time would be better spent cleaning the fridge.” [sympathetic “wah-wah” from a single trombone]

At times like this, the mentor would do well to remember words from her own hero, her great-uncle Wilbur Braithwaite. Wilbur was a writer of poetry and music who also happened to be veteran of World War II, a state-champion coach in multiple sports over a 50-year career, and a mentor to hundreds of high school athletes. In this article, he listed the following as one of his “Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching”:

“Your players tend to become what they believe you think they are.”

Ponder that for a minute. If I treat myself as a wannabe who is wasting her time, most likely I will remain a time-wasting wannabe. If, however, I can treat myself as a beginning writer who has great potential and promise, I will work harder and continue to improve, and I may just fulfill that potential and promise. So the lesson, I think, is this: Be kind to yourself, believe in yourself, and then remember #10 from Wilbur’s list:

“Work hard to influence the outcome of important things within your control.”

That’s the advice I’m giving my protégé today.

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Elaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

From Passenger to Pilot

As I draft this post, I’m sitting in an Airbus A320 from KDTW to KDEN at flight level 370. I don’t know this because I have a great deal of aeronautical knowledge or because I was even particularly paying attention to the pre-flight speech; I know this because my aviation-obsessed son did a little research before I left.

Jack spends his time watching instructional videos and studying navigation charts. The reward for getting his work done is ten minutes of YouTube aviation channels. It is a powerful motivator. My son is passionate about flight to the point that it’s not enough to fly on an airplane, to be the passenger. He has to become a pilot.

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I think this is not unlike the reason we write. We love story to the point that it is not enough to be along for the ride. We need to be the one charting the course, the one taking others on the journey. But in order to do so successfully—in order to make the jump from passenger to pilot—there’s a tremendous amount of work that must take place. Skills to be acquired. Forces of physics and nature and mechanics to understand. We must learn how to chart the course, how to navigate it safely, and how to listen to the essential voices from the ground that are guiding us in the right direction.

Writing is an art, certainly, but I think all art requires this study and work, unglamorous though it may be. I remember coming to an elementary school arts night and being amazed at the quality and technique of the self-portraits the kindergarteners drew. Just as I was marveling at how many of the kids I could actually recognize from their portraits, I was shocked to hear a parent complaining that art should be free expression and that all the portraits looked the same. Yes, all the portraits looked similar in that they all looked remarkably like human faces. Drawn by kindergarteners! Of course art is expression, but we must first acquire the tools and skills with which to express ourselves. As a friend in theater education says, “If we want kids to think outside the box, they first have to understand the box.” Certainly this is true at any age.

And so it is with our writing. We can take our stories to new heights and undiscovered places—but we must do so with an understanding of the principles and potential dangers, of the layout of the land and the craft that’s taking us there. We keep our skills sharp by attending a conference, taking a class, reading a new book on writing or creativity. Only then can we have the soaring sensation and the breathtaking beauty we first fell in love with, and only then can we share those things with our readers as well.

What will you do this summer to become a better pilot?


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

An Author’s Christmas Eve

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Writing and publishing are often compared to a roller coaster, because hey, we’re writers, and sometimes we want to save the really creative metaphors for our work. But writing and publishing could also be compared to a calendar year—some beautiful days, some rotten ones, seasons of bleak gray, seasons of anticipation and waiting and hard work.

If I think of my own writing journey in these terms (and as somebody who celebrates Christmas), I’ve arrived at Christmas Eve. There’s a red-letter day on the calendar that I’ve been counting down toward forever, and suddenly, it’s almost here. My debut novel is about to be released, and I have an actual hardcover copy that I can hold in my hands! In all honesty, I always imagined this part would feel like Christmas Eve, and it does! But there’s a catch.

I imagined this part of the publishing journey would feel like Christmas Eve as a kid. Nothing but parties and treats and gleeful anticipation of the day you’ve been waiting for forever. Knowing that on the other side of sunrise, you’ll get the very thing you’ve been waiting and wishing for, and all your dreams will come true.

Ahh. Christmas Eve.

The reality is that right now feels less like the Christmas Eves of my childhood and a whole lot more like Christmas Eve as an adult. It’s a wonderful time, to be sure, but there is also a crap ton of work to do. Things to assemble and buy and so many people to reach out to. Events to plan. And will any of it live up to the expectations of those you’re trying so hard to please?

In this Christmas Eve scenario, there is only one gift, and it’s both the one you’re giving and the one you’re receiving: your book. Talk about pressure.

By the way, I don’t think this applies only to writers on the eve of traditional publication. I felt this way before I clicked “send” on queries. Each time my agent sent a new batch of submissions. I feel this way a little even when I send something I’ve written to my closest friends and critique partners and even to my parents. The stories we craft are pieces of ourselves, and it’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to give them to readers of any kind.

So what do you do when Christmas Eve arrives, as it inevitably does? You take that gift that you’ve labored over and you try to find the very best ways to package it and present it, with a query letter or jacket copy or the perfect book trailer or postcards for libraries or…you get the idea. Sometimes this works beautifully, but sometimes the gift itself resists that packaging.

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Another thing: Even when things seem to be going smoothly, there’s a distinct possibility itching at the back of your mind that perhaps the gift itself is not quite right after all. That in spite of all your efforts and thought and planning and sacrifice, what you have to offer isn’t going to measure up. That even you will be disappointed when Christmas morning arrives and this one imperfect story is all there is. But it’s sure as heck too late to do anything about that, because it’s Christmas Eve and you couldn’t change it if you wanted to, and even if you could, on a fundamental level it is what it is and you would probably only make it worse. So maybe just put another bow on top…

No. See there? The bow was too much, and now you’re questioning all your wrapping choices, and the thing inside the package is still exactly the same as it was before, which is to say that it’s still not perfect.

As soon as this gift leaves our hands and passes to someone else’s, there is the distinct possibility that it won’t quite be what they were looking for. There is a high probability that they will recognize its imperfections.

But here’s the thing: That’s what life is. Imperfect and yet incredible. That’s what your gift is, in its own way. In fact, that’s what so much of what we write yearns to convey.

Here are my characters. Imperfect, yet incredible.

Here is their journey. Imperfect, yet incredible.

Here I am, the deepest parts of my soul visible in slivers of light and shadow and all shades in between through the words I put on this page. Imperfect, yet incredible.

What a gift it would be to recognize the value of our words and the value in ourselves, during all seasons of this journey. For me, on this Christmas Eve, I’ve still got miles to go.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, October 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.