This story begins with a booger.
In 2003, I was struggling with a poem-story on which I’d been laboring for a year. The picture book draft featured a swashbuckling girl pirate, Petra, but the story lacked…something. In the midst of agonizing over how to fix my manuscript, I ended up stuck in an airport seated across from a preternaturally disgusting child. He was absorbed in dislodging what I imagined had to be—based on his intense excavation—the worst booger of all time. Just as his efforts reached their apex, the mother of this mucus-laden child leaned over and said in a voice of utter serenity, “Andrew, snot is not food.” Andrew’s brow furrowed, his eyes crossed and, in one grotesque moment, he popped the booger into his mouth with glorious defiance. At that moment, I knew what Petra was missing: a nemesis. Thus, Andrew Snoteater was born.
Naturally, I felt that I had the perfect story in my hands and, even more naturally, I was wrong. Two months later the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out and agents and editors nationwide issued a moratorium on any and all pirate exploits. Faced with a manuscript that seemed destined to failure, I stuck Petra in a drawer and resolved to forget her, but I kept on writing.
A decade later, I had finished my first novel and embarked on my second, but still had no sales or representation. So like many new writers, I focused on query letters. The general commentary on what separates great queries from middling ones seemed to boil down to Potter Stewart’s rather dubious, “I know it when I see it.” Frustrated, I decided to spend three days pouring over the hundreds of available queries online looking for patterns. And I found one. Every great query had one and only one shared quality: the author had either published a short story or poem, or had won an award from a respected organization—an organization like SCBWI.
I had already joined the SCBWI a year earlier, determined to improve my writing. I attended workshops and writer’s days but, in spite of my many delusions of literary grandeur, competing for awards had never crossed my mind. Scouring the SCBWI website, I found two competitions for which I was eligible: the SCBWI-LA region Sue Alexander Grant for the Working Writer’s Retreat and the newly inaugurated SCBWI Student Writer Scholarship. After a series of aggressive revisions, I submitted the beginning of my middle grade novel Crumbs, a science fiction reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, and convinced myself that even though I would lose, I had tried.
I won both.
When the e-mail saying that I had received the Student Writer Scholarship arrived, I danced around my laptop. Nothing could take this moment away from me, I thought. Nothing aside from the very next e-mail, which informed me that I had lost my fall funding for my PhD program. Thankfully, the support from SCBWI kept me focused and even helped to convince my university that maybe, just maybe, I was worth funding after all. I attended the Summer Conference and the next month I arrived at the retreat where I dug the resilient (and heavily revised) Petra and Andrew Snoteater out of mothballs and showed them to editor Allyn Johnston. To my shock and delight, she bought the book and Petra and Andrew Snoteater really will sail the picture book seas. So keep writing, set concrete goals, and pay attention to who is sitting near you. Because you never know when your inspiration is stuck up someone else’s nose.
Amanda Hollander is the author of Petra, forthcoming from Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The manuscript for her first novel, Kudzu, won the Shirley Collier Prize for Fiction in 2012. Amanda is continuing her dissertation at UCLA. Follow her on Twitter @HollanderAmanda.