I used to have this idea that being an author meant typing away for days in a little countryside house, chasing dreams like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Tea, wine, and chocolate would be the only work buddies I needed.
I wanted to take that romanticized road less traveled. My resolve was reinforced when I told people I was an aspiring author. They gave me a standard “that’s nice” with a look of pity that said, “oh, that’s never going to happen. That’s not a real job. A real job has benefits. Office hours. Consistent paychecks.” And a break room with a water cooler and bad instant coffee—yes, I got it. I also got that I needed to find new people to talk to about writing.
After my first SCBWI conference in 2004, I didn’t walk away with a publishing contract. Or an agent. But I was nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. I was ecstatic—it was the first time the hours I spent writing felt validated.
What I didn’t know then was that the nomination wasn’t the best thing that happened. I had shared a weekend with writers and illustrators, and yes, that was their real job. Even though usually I’d rather staple my hand to a table than introduce myself to a stranger, I’d somehow met authors that would end up as friends, critique partners, and the core of my support system.
I kept writing and submitting even as form rejection after form rejection came in. SCBWI had given me a map of sorts and I was following it.
I soon realized the map was huge and when it came to where to submit, I didn’t know which route to take. It was time to ask for directions. Before my next conference, I spent two days standing in front of a mirror practicing approaching Lin Oliver (much like a teenage girl trying to get the courage to talk to her crush). When I did, she was thoughtful, caring, gave me spectacular advice, and put me in contact with Kim Turrisi (let’s call her Learning Not to Drown’s godmother). Kim pointed out a path: a handful of agents that could be a good match. She may not have turned a coach into a carriage, but it was just as magical. Her direction, and a second nomination for The Sue Alexander Award in 2006, led me to a contract with agent Jennie Dunham.
In 2009, after years of rejections and multiple manuscripts, it happened. I signed a contract with Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
On April 1, 2014, almost ten years after that first conference, Learning Not to Drown was published.
Today, my SCBWI family gives me another map—one that helps me navigate the world of book signings, school visits, social media . . . and working on that looming second novel.
Maybe I could have done it all on my own, eventually, taking that romantic—and lonely—road less traveled. But that would have been like walking aimlessly into the woods when there was a perfectly good path that led where I wanted to go.
Sometimes a road well-traveled connects friends on the same journey. SCBWI has introduced me to authors and illustrators, agents and editors, who not only believe it is possible to be successful, but run along with me, celebrating the process, every step of the way.
Oh . . . and tea, chocolate and wine? They may be cliché, but they are with me when I need hours of solitude to write . . . and they’re always a hit at critique groups.
Anna Shinoda was raised in a mountain town so small it lacked a stoplight. She used to escape into the high branches of trees to read and dream up stories. Eventually, she climbed down with her debut novel, Learning Not to Drown.