On a December day in 2018, I opened an email with an offer to publish my middle grade novel, Swallowed by a Secret. I was stunned.
An acquisitions editor from a small, traditional publisher had liked my Twitter pitch and requested the full manuscript. Was this a dream come true or not? On the way to putting pen to paper and signing my name on the line, I realized that now some of me would be out in public view, with whatever attending baggage that carried.
Until that time, I had only shared my writing with critique partners, workshop leaders, an editor and a superb sensitivity reader. There had been a couple of requests from family to read it, and my answer was always a firm “no.” I was concerned that for some close to me parts of my book might call up difficult memories, the kind we often get used to hiding under the proverbial rug.
For me, this dilemma of allowing some truth out into the wider world was full of irony, because choosing between truth and secrets is a central theme in Swallowed by a Secret. When twelve-year-old Rocky learns that his mother’s explanation of how his father died is bogus, he is consumed by the secret. He loses trust in his one remaining parent, and his life begins to unravel. He and his assistant sleuth, Olive, are determined to crack his mom’s secret, and Rocky embarks on a journey of eavesdropping, snooping and risks to discover the truth.
As I engaged in an inner conflict about whether I should roll back that rug and uncover the hidden elephant underneath, I noticed that more and more writers were stepping up to their own truths and writing their realities about heritage, ethnicity, disabilities, gender issues and more. A hashtag #ownvoices was created to honor that authenticity.
I did sign the contract and began the wild author’s ride, which started with giving the manuscript to my family to read. They claim (if we can believe that our families would be honest about this) to love the story, the characters, the plot, the mystery and especially the ending. They’re proud of me. Whew! My fears vaporized with those words. Searching on the Internet to see what wisdom could be gleaned from seasoned writers about using their own experiences in their work, I came across a quote from award-winning author Maile Meloy in a 2009 interview with Fiction Writers Review. She said, “I think you have to find an emotional connection to the story, to make anyone else care about it, but I would find writing only what I know to be limiting.”
That summed it up beautifully. Both elements – real life and the creativity of fiction – are necessary to give your story depth, sincerity and believable emotions. After all, that is the essence of why we write and why people read. Recently, I asked some KidLit authors in an informal survey about how much of what they write is based on their lives. The overwhelming response was a lot, but they work hard to mask the people and events so they are undetectable.
Only one person mentioned a significant issue when a friend became upset that the author told her story without permission, even though it was completely fictionalized. None of the others had problems, and many commented that people who recognized themselves or their stories in their books were flattered.
In a recent Inked Voices interview, Jen Malone, author and teacher extraordinaire, responded to a question about whether people and events in her books are part of her real life. She replied, “You know that note on the copyright page that says ‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental’? Total BS! Every author steals from their real life to populate their books!”
Yes, that is the truth.
Note from Brooke: Today is Risa’s launch day! Check out Swallowed by a Secret, published by Immortal Works and available via Amazon. You can also find Risa on Twitter @risanymantweet. Congratulations, Risa!
About the Author
Born in Boston with the accent to prove it, Risa Nyman lived within ten miles of the city for decades until a recent move to the neighboring Ocean State. For many years, Risa worked in a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting active participation in our democracy, with a special focus on voting and elections. Risa’s deep dive into creative writing started with a strange event that involved finding three pennies in a neat stack in a completely empty apartment that belonged to her mother. It’s a long story. Writing is now her priority and passion. At other times, Risa is reading, exercising or doing therapeutic ironing – unless the grandchildren are around.