Layers of Self: How My Novel Grew Up With Me

Layers of Self: How My Novel Grew Up With Me

When I was nine years old, I handed my parents the synopsis of a then-unwritten book scrawled in my chaotic handwriting. I announced that I was going to write a novel and get it published.

My parents believed me. I got to work.

Seven years later, I’ve completed and published my debut fantasy novel, The Shadow in Her Pocket, and needless to say, I’m thrilled. I get to hold my book in my hands! People other than my dad can read it! This project spanned over a third of my life, and now I’ve crossed the finish line.

A lot of people ask me why I wrote a book, which I think is a question that any writer, any artist, is asked at some point. For me, the answer is ultimately that I was inspired by other authors. The moment after I finish a great story is a cathartic experience—the characters I fell in love with are reduced once again to letters on a page and exactly what will happen next in their world is up for speculation.

But for a few moments, the world slows down, as if tinted with a color so translucent that I can’t figure out exactly what has changed. This might be a romantic, dramatic way of thinking, but I truly believe that the best authors, having immersed you in the mind of their characters, compel you to stop and reflect on your own life differently. Plus, independent of any philosophical beliefs I hold, books are fun. Reading brings me joy, and I want to try and share that joy with other people.

Reflecting on my writing process, I can safely say that I wouldn’t have written the same book at any other point in my life. Sandra Cisneros says in her short story “Eleven” that as we age, we remain composed of the layers of what used to define us. My book is also a product of my changing strengths and values as I grew up as a writer and a person.

For the first three years I started writing my book, I didn’t have any set timeline or deadline for myself, and I didn’t write an outline. Honestly, I was changing the plot so often that during this time, I had no idea how the story was going to end. I primarily knew three main things about the book: I wanted the book to be fantasy, because all of my favorite books were fantasy and I wanted to write about magic. I also felt it was unfair to women that the vast majority of fantasy novels excluded or underrepresented them, so I decided that the government in my book would be a matriarchy and that the majority of my characters would be girls and women. Additionally, I wanted the narrative to alternate perspective between multiple protagonists, because I felt like in the books I had read, this encouraged the writer to craft a more nuanced, multi-dimensional world and cast of characters. And, while the roles of my characters all morphed over time, the personalities of the three main protagonists remained, and they drove the story forward.

While refusing to plan my story beforehand wasn’t the most efficient lens for writing in terms of time, this initial lack of structure was a blessing. I was able to focus on my primary motivation for writing: because it was fun. When I sat down at a blank page, I brainstormed what I would want to read about, then wrote about that. I was able to capture the emotions of what it meant to be a preteen. I remember feeling that books aimed at Middle Graders (middle-school-age readers) didn’t portray us realistically, probably because the majority of published authors are adults. Since I was the same age as my characters, I was hoping to avoid that. (Though, to any fellow MG writers, I’m pretty sure the most important thing is to avoid talking down to your audience. Kids are smart.) I inundated the story with my interests and imagination, and though a lot of it was random and disconnected, in retrospect, I’m so glad that I did because it enabled me to encapsulate a story that would appeal to the kids in my target MG audience. The characters, the magic, and the heart of the story were developed in these initial years—and I never altered the crux in the drafts that followed.

In seventh grade, I decided it was time to get serious with my book. I scrapped the 150 pages that I’d written in the past three years and kept the key elements (read: coolest parts) of the story, but connected them into a cohesive plot, formulated the ending, and rewrote it in my more refined writing style. I’d improved a lot at my craft since I’d started writing it, both because of the developmental differences between a nine and twelve-year-old and because of the amount that I had written in those years. (I attribute most of the progress to practice). When I was twelve and thirteen, I wrote 450 pages: my first draft. I was especially proud of the length at the time, because, aside from my family, adults tended to underestimate the amount of work I’d done on my book. The 450 pages, in my mind, served as a quantitative marker of my seriousness as an author. I didn’t want my book to be underestimated just because of my age.

When I was 14, I had my focus set on publishing, specifically traditional publishing. I needed to learn more about the process, and I wanted to meet other writers. My dad agreed to take me to the annual Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, where writers from across the country met up to connect with each other, attend workshops, and pitch to literary agents (a necessary step before getting signed to a major publishing house). I wasn’t exactly sure what the conference would be like, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would take me seriously, but I figured it was worth a shot. I prepared the pitch for my book and boarded the plane to the Big Apple.

The conference was a blur—a wonderful, information-packed blur. Many more people attended the conference than I had imagined, and I found myself in crowded auditoriums gathering the courage to ask the speaker questions and striking up conversation with hundreds of different writers. I didn’t encounter any other teenagers at the conference, but no one was condescending. In fact, everyone I spoke with was wonderful and I loved hearing about their fascinating projects and passions. It was exhilarating to step into such a large community of people who loved words as much as I did.

For me, however, the main event was the Pitch Slam, where writers could sign up to propose their story to any of the participating literary agents. The line to enter the Pitch Slam snaked endlessly through one of the hallways, and I rehearsed my pitch to anyone who would listen. The Pitch Slam itself went by impossibly fast. Writers had only two minutes to speak with each agent, and each rotation was punctuated by a curt bell.

The agents were extremely different from one another. Some of them were so stoic that I couldn’t fathom what they were thinking, while others were so animated that I thought they might jump out of their seats to give the writers a hug. Each of the agents seemed to value different aspects of my story, but the one comment that I received in every single meeting was that my novel, at 450 pages, was way too long for a Middle Grade book, especially for a debut author. Seven out of the eight agents I met with requested to see my manuscript, which I was proud of. But this feedback, coupled with what I had learned in the seminars, convinced me that my work on the book was far from finished.

It was eye-opening to realize that one of the aspects that I had valued so much—the length—was ultimately a drawback in the literary world. I had clung to that number as a measure of legitimacy, but it was time to value myself and my work over other people’s assumptions. And besides, I now had a community and a family who believed in me regardless.

When I returned home, I examined my story and began revising it, cutting out unnecessary scenes and making the language more concise. I whittled my manuscript down to around 200 pages without sacrificing the heart of the plot. This increased the pace of my story and, in my opinion, made it feel more action-packed.

A few months later, I met a teen artist at a local music festival where my rock band was playing (I’m an electric guitarist). I was blown away by my friend’s art and commissioned him to paint the design I had been envisioning for my book cover. In my not-so-unbiased opinion, he did a stunning job!

I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference again the next year, and this time, I wasn’t adamant about publishing my book traditionally. I participated in the Pitch Slam a second time, but I took the opportunity to learn as much as I could about self-publishing.

It was through repeating my tradition of practicing my elevator pitch on any willing listeners that I met my soon-to-be editor, Jackie. Just before the conference, I had ordered business cards with my information and book cover. When I handed one to Jackie after my pitch, her eyes lit up.

“Is that a bird on the cover?” she asked.

“Yeah! They’re magical glowing birds called gleams. They’re the only light source in an underground city where one of my characters lives.”

“I love birds,” Jackie said, handing me her own business card. Next to her name was a watercolor robin. “If you ever need an editor, contact me.”

I did contact her. Shortly after the conference, I decided that I was going to self-publish my first book because of the creative freedom it would allow me. Since this meant that I wouldn’t have the feedback of a publisher’s team, I wanted to get a second opinion.

Jackie’s primary critique was that I hadn’t included enough information. At first I thought this was ironic, given the main focus of my previous revision, but I soon realized that I wasn’t undoing my work. I had taken out the “filler” scenes and writing, which would have been a good thing regardless of the word count. Now all I had to do was add the necessary backstory and worldbuilding. The fact that my book was high fantasy, compounded by it having three perspective characters (and, hence, three individual yet entwining storylines) meant that there were a lot of crucial details to include. Since I knew my story’s world so well, it had been impossible for me to remember what context I had or hadn’t already explained without an outsider to let me know. Jackie’s tips were a lifesaver, and I pushed through the last of the edits to prepare the book for publication.

Now, the journey of writing my first novel is complete. I’m learning to navigate the business aspect of the job, and I’m starting work on my next projects. The more I promote my book and write other pieces, more people reach out to me, which has definitely been one of my favorite parts about the process. Recently, I’ve been able to connect with many other young writers, both teens my age and younger kids. Hearing about their stories makes my day, and the camaraderie is awesome.

However, I can’t explain my identity as a writer without emphasizing the true beginning. A foundational layer of who I am, and the very first layer of my book’s story, formed when I was much younger than nine.

When I was a baby, and a toddler, and a generally smaller human being, my mom sat down and read stories to me all the time. She’s the one who convinced me that I could read a whole chapter book by myself when I was five, and while I was reluctant at first, I ended up devouring that novel. The book was about dragons.

I’m really lucky to have not only a parent who values reading as much as my mom does, but also to have had access to books at home for my entire life. A lot of people don’t have that experience, and I want to do my part to try to change that. When I was in fifth grade, I found out about Bookspring, a local child literacy nonprofit that distributes books to kids in Central Texas. The organization, and all of the kids I have met through the program, are amazing. I’ve been volunteering with them ever since, and now that my book is published, I’m donating a portion of the proceeds from my book sales to Bookspring.

Ultimately, I believe that everyone should lean into what makes them unique, even if it goes against the grain of the conventional and the accepted. Whether you’re a writer or not—regardless of your job and your passions—your journey, and all the layers of who you are, are immensely important.

No one can write the same story that you can, so put ink to the page.

*Feature Image by Fennec Monroe (book cover art for The Shadow in Her Pocket by Ren Koppel-Torres)

Ren Koppel Torres is the teen author of The Shadow in Her Pocket, a MG fantasy novel she began at 9. She writes for publications including Writer's Digest and passionately promotes child literacy.
More posts by Ren Koppel Torres.
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