Tag Archives: Tara Sullivan

Signed Books Motivate Me to Keep Writing

I buy oodles of books. They pile up on shelves, and on a wide windowsill beside my writing desk. They collect dust in stacks on a braided blue rug, and from time to time I clean them off. Every year we donate one or two boxes worth to a library sale, clearing space for new reads. But I can’t bear to part with any of the books that authors have signed to me. To me.

 

These pictures show only some of the many signed YA and middle grade titles in my collection. I also have a slew written for adults—nonfiction, poetry, memoir, mystery, thrillers, and literary fiction. I’d like to say I’ve read them all, but the truth is that some sit in my to-be-read stack (which got three books taller after last week’s RVA Lit Crawl. Richmond, VA, is a great town in which to be a writer. Have I said that before? Yeah.)

 

It takes a long time to draft a novel, and even longer to revise it, and in my case we’re talking years. I’m currently in a stage of deep and messy revision on two novels, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get them out into the world. Sometimes I feel discouraged.

 

 

Then I pick up a signed book, feel its weight, turn a few pages, and run a finger across the inscription. I picture the author who signed it. I try to recall the conversation we had on the day I got the signature. I remember getting tongue-tied when I met Lois Lowry because The Giver is one of my all time favorites and I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting the author. We were in Richmond in the bookstore formerly known as Narnia (now bbgb books), and for Lois it had been a long day. I think she’d done some school visits, and by late afternoon was probably ready for a nap, but there I was, eager and tongue-tied, and as I recall, I mumbled that I was writing a book for young readers. “Good luck,” I think she said. Or maybe, “It’s a rewarding job.” Or maybe I’ve forgotten her exact words, but I haven’t forgotten her encouragement, her warmth, her smile.

 

Sometimes when I look at my name handwritten in a book, I imagine the author writing a new novel, hunched over a desk or leaning back in an overstuffed chair with a laptop, sipping coffee, typing away. I always picture these authors smiling, but who knows? Maybe they cry while they write. (Nah. Don’t tell me that. And actually, come to think of it, one of these authors has passed away, so I have to picture her smiling from heaven.) In any case, the image of most of these authors hard at work on another book motives me to get back to my manuscript.

Every morning when I slip into my backless chair, the shelves above my desk like telephone wires full of birds chatting and singing, ready to take flight, I feel the authors smiling. I imagine they’re smiling at me. At me! And I pick up my gel pen and begin to write…

 

Opening Lines

I should complete a first draft before deciding on my opening lines. I know I know I know this, but I’m starting a new novel, and I want the first chapter to be really good, so I just spent a morning re-writing what I drafted yesterday.

You’re wasting your time. I scold myself, and it’s deserved. I don’t yet know these characters, don’t know where they’ll take this story. Write like your fingers are on fire, Kathi Appelt told me. Get all the way to the end before you revise, Ellen Howard told me.

I know I know I know this, but revision is so satisfying, and blank screens so terrifying.

And so I procrastinate.

I pulled a bunch of books from my shelves and poured over opening lines. I know these authors didn’t write these lines in the first week that they sat down to work on these books. I know I know I know this.

But still.

I want to write this well. Read these openings.

 

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

They took me in my nightgown.

Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace. Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

We were taken.

 

Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.”

I had a full shock of dark hair and long legs like the rest of the women in Freddie’s side of the family, but no one noticed these things. No one saw anything but the wings, which were heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan. They were smaller than Freddie’s palm, slick with primordial ooze, compressed accordion-style against my back. The doctor whispered, “Some kind of birth defect.” Defect. “How some kids are born with tails and others with cleft palates.” He mopped his brow. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

 

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only human, or scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.

But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home.

 

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Everybody likes sugar.

Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry Pie. Yellow cake.

But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.

“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.

There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.

 

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

I am sitting under the acacia tree on the ridge when I first see them: three men, in nice clothes, coming toward our house. Their shoulders are straight and their fat bellies strain against their belts when they walk. They are the image of power.

I wish I could see their faces, but my eyes aren’t good enough for that this far away. I peel off my long-sleeved shirt and my floppy hat with the cloth sewn onto the back and crawl to the edge of the ridge in nothing by my long pants. My skin burns so easily that I could never do this in the middle of the day, no matter how hot it was, but now that the sun is setting I can enjoy the feeling of the wind whispering over me. Our goats mill around me, eating their dinner; the breeze carries the smells of the evening meal my mother and sister are preparing up the slope. The three men walk to our door.

Hodi hodi!” the first man bellows.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
where
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
unfree
dawn till dusk
unpaid
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
to freedom.

 

Don’t you just feel hugged by the confidence in these voices? I do. Hugged. Embraced. Encouraged. Inspired. Ready now to go back and write like my fingers are on fire.