Nearly ten years ago, when I was still fairly new at writing for children, I found the Blueboards, an online forum founded by Verla Kay. I also met some critique partners there, and one of them, Miriam Spitzer Franklin, shared her middle-grade novel with me. That’s when I first fell in love with her main character, Pansy.
Over the years, and through several evolving drafts, I kept hoping the world would have the opportunity to get to know Pansy, too. Recently that hope became a reality. EXTRAORDINARY is now available in bookstores, and I am excited to talk with Miriam today about this amazing book.
First, a quick summary of the story:
Last spring, Pansy chickened out on going to sleepaway camp, even though she’d promised her best friend, Anna, she’d go. It was just like when they went to get their hair cut for Locks of Love; only one of them walked out with a new hairstyle, and it wasn’t Pansy. But Pansy never got the chance to make it up to Anna. While at camp, Anna contracted meningitis and a dangerously high fever, and she hasn’t been the same since. The last words spoken to each other were angry ones, and now all Pansy wants is her best friend back—not the silent girl in the wheelchair who has to go to a special school and who can’t do all the things Pansy used to chicken out of doing. So when Pansy discovers that Anna is getting a surgery that might cure her, she knows she’s been given the chance she’s been waiting for- a chance to get Anna back, by finally facing her fears and becoming extraordinary, the kind of best friend Anna deserves.
Welcome, Miriam! I am so excited to see this book out in the world! But as I mentioned earlier, you’ve been working on this story for a decade. Can you share the original spark of an idea that eventually became EXTRAORDINARY?
My original plan for the book was to write about an ordinary girl who woke up one day and decided she was tired of blending into the walls and it was time for her to become an extraordinary person. In my very first draft, which was in third person instead of first, Pansy Smith fixes her hair in six braids and ties them with purple ribbons, then chooses to wear two different shoes in order to get noticed. In EXTRAORDINARY, Pansy cuts off her hair because it was a broken promise to Anna and she wears the two different shoes by accident. Originally, Anna was a minor character, a friend who suffered a severe brain injury when she was five.
That is a great story idea, though quite a bit different than the story we can read today. How did it evolve?
Although I queried agents (without much response) and ran the book through my critique partners, I knew something was missing. Then one very wise critique partner–Oh, that was you, Elissa!–told me I needed to be brave, start over, “and let Pansy rise from the ashes.” As much as I didn’t want to take her advice, I knew she was right. So I put the book aside for a while to work on other projects. And somehow, after the book sat in a drawer for a couple of years, the answer came to me in those crazy ways that solutions to writing problems do: it popped into my head out of nowhere. Pansy’s motivation to become extraordinary needed to come from more than just wanting to be noticed. Pansy’s and Anna’s stories needed to be linked, and Anna needed to be the motivation for Pansy’s transformation. I also realized that I’d been avoiding the tough emotional places that needed to be explored, and that by dating the brain injury I distanced Pansy (and myself) from the raw feelings that come with a situation like this one.
I am so glad you didn’t leave it in that drawer forever! (I’m also slightly surprised someone actually listened to me, and that it turned out to be the right decision.)
Speaking of those tough emotional places…it’s both heartbreaking and, well, extraordinary to see how Pansy deals with Anna now that she isn’t the friend she used to be. How did you find the right balance between Pansy’s often humorous antics and those bittersweet moments when she interacts with Anna?
I don’t like to read dreary and depressing books, and I’m sure most kids don’t want to either. I knew this needed to be a hopeful, positive story and I knew that would have to come from Pansy herself. While most of the book is a countdown to the brain surgery that Pansy is sure will cure Anna, Pansy spends most of her time chasing goals on her quest to become extraordinary. And because none of these goals come easy for her, there’s plenty of opportunities for humor as Pansy learns to skate, tries to win a reading contest, joins Girl Scouts, and though not in her list of goals–makes new friends. I wanted to show that while Pansy misses her friend with all her heart, life moves on in its crazy and unpredictable way, and that even in the saddest of times there’s still laughter and joy.
We’ve already mentioned that you worked on this novel extensively. How do you revise your novels?
Revisions are actually my favorite part of the process; I guess because my first attempts are just getting the manuscript written and through revision I hope to get to the heart of my story. Once I’ve figured out what needs to happen, the writing flows much easier than it does in the first drafts. I don’t really have a formula for how I tackle revision. I just go scene by scene, cutting what doesn’t fit any more and elaborating on scenes that are important. Even if it’s a complete rewrite, I go back to my original version which has a structure even if I’m changing it altogether. Though most everything was changed from the first draft, there were still some scenes or parts of scenes that I kept.
I love that, as the author, you never ever gave up on this book, even after several (dozen) rejections. Your determination matches your main character, Pansy, in fact. What advice do you have for others who are pursuing their dreams, especially when things get tough?
I love this question! All my life I’ve persevered when things don’t come easily to me, a lot like Pansy. I started figure skating when I was a teenager, watching others around me land jumps in weeks that took me years to learn. I even failed a compulsory figures test NINE times. This was back in the day when they made you draw figure eights on the ice and judges would come out and walk around on the ice to check the accuracy of your turns and alignment. I know others who failed a test once or twice, but NINE times?
I guess that’s the same determination that would keep me writing manuscripts for *AHEM* years without getting any interest from an agent. EXTRAORDINARY was probably my sixth or seventh completed novel, but since all the others had been revised millions of times before they went back in the drawer, and during the time I was teaching full-time I only worked on my writing during the summer….well, you can do the math and figure out how long this journey to publication has taken. One thing that’s kept me going over the years is the same as with most of us out there–we just can’t quit. When we’re not writing, we’re thinking up new characters and stories and we would go a bit crazy if we couldn’t get the stories out. Also, like with my skating, I got encouragement from those around me. My coach always said I was ready to take the test and land the jumps, but I just needed to have confidence, keep working hard, and not let nerves get in my way. My critique partners have been there to basically tell me the same thing. As long as I could see progress- a complimentary rejection, an encouraging critique at a conference, CPs who pointed out the good along with the work that needed to be done–then I was able to keep going. The crazy thing about this manuscript is that I basically landed an agent on the FIRST query. After umpteen years of querying, when an agent contacted me on the Verla Kay boards requesting the manuscript from my query post, I fell right off my chair. And then when she requested the full a week after reading the chapters, and set up a phone call a week after that…well, the whole thing was mind-boggling. I had to do an R&R before signing, but I knew that this book was different from the others I’d queried.
I am so glad that agent, and now your publisher, saw the gem I had seen so many years ago! But now that Pansy’s story is told, do you have another main character we can fall in love with? Tell us about your next novel.
The working title of my next middle grade is SUNNY BERINGER’S TOTALLY AWESOME PLAN FOR ROMANCE.
Afraid of losing the only father she’s ever known, eleven-year-old Sunny tries to spark romance between her mom and her longtime boyfriend after Mom enrolls in college and moves the family miles away from home. But when Sunny discovers her “parents’ have been keeping secrets from her, she is determined to do whatever it takes to get back home, even if she has to lie, sneak around, and hurt the people who care about her. In the end, Sunny learns that families come in all shapes and sizes and that taking the easy way out in facing your problems only means that you’ll have to face the consequences.
It sounds fascinating! Thank you, Miriam, for sharing so much with us today! And best wishes to you and Pansy.
Readers, now it’s your chance to get a copy of this amazing book! Leave a comment below to be entered to win one copy of EXTRAORDINARY. Only US residents are eligible (sorry, international folks). The winner will be chosen Tuesday, August 18, 2015.
Elissa Cruz isn’t nearly as extraordinary as Pansy, the main character in EXTRAORDINARY. But she is the mother of five children and that is pretty awesome. She writes fiction for kids and teens. You can find out more about her at www.elissacruz.com.