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Four Years at the Mount

Freshman year

My Writing History

Carolyn Shields

(Feb, 2011) I was bored in the car and waiting for my piano lesson (ew) when I wrote my first novel at thirteen. There was no outline. No research. Just pure imagination. Soon, I wanted to write something that was deeper. So the last months of my freshmen year at Catoctin, I was on Wikipedia when I found out Marie Antoinette had a daughter. I was shocked because I loved European history, but I had no clue a daughter existed. So I read…

Marie-Therese and her royal family were placed under house arrest by General Lafayette of the American Revolution. She was locked in a tower when she was fifteen. She became the only Bourbon to survive the French Revolution. The fact that convinced me to write about this girl's life for my next novel was that though her mother is the most renowned queen of European history, Marie is known as the shortest reigning monarch in world history. I decided to write how her corrupted mother, blinded by power, and their stressed relationship spurred on Marie’s terrors of the monarchy.

So to be perfectly honest with you, my first research was all done on Wikipedia. Basic research at its most pathetic. I took that skimpy research with me on my family's trip out west and began writing about Imperial France in the deserts of our country.

I handwrote the first draft. I guess it's old fashioned but I find something romantic about it, sitting at my desk in the winter and watching the snow fall or, in one case, sitting in a hospital bed, penning away…Then come the revisions. I've done this up to ten times on my book, but I lost count after that because I was hitting my head on the desk so often. Major research followed which beefed up my works cited page a good bit. To the disdain of English teachers everywhere, I added a little thank you to Wikipedia at the bottom of it.

"Lavender’s Blue" is an account of the revolution from the eyes of Marie. She had internal struggles with her faith, as well as her heart. She was deprived of familial love growing up, and in my novel a man offers his love but she understands the dangers of associating oneself with her family and makes the sacrificial decision to deny it. I thought about love quite a lot while writing this.

One day I found the golden ticket to getting my book published: "Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents." It's the mama load. The big daddy. It's the largest book I own, but tons of agencies are listed right there.

Being lazy, I developed the master plan of applying to them alphabetically. From numero dos, I received a speedy response to my email query. God was already working miracles for me. I was then presented with a tough decision: should I admit my age? Would that work for or against me? I fibbed and said I was a year older than I was. Through God's amazing and beautiful grace, this agency called me that week.

Cue Most Embarrassing Moment of Carolyn Shields's Life.

My little sister was the one to pick up the phone when it rang, and my older sister seductively sang into the receiver like an idiot. Like everything in our house, the phone was broken and an ear ripping squeal would sometimes go off. Our phone also recorded things on the answering machine, working like a speaker phone so everyone could hear what was said. I took the phone and the woman asked if I was Carolyn Shields.

"Hi, this is Janice Bender calling from Artists of Literature Literary Agency in New York City."

And then came the stuttering on my part (which everyone heard), followed by tears of joy when I hung up and found out that they were mailing a contract. I think each tear was followed by a thousand thanksgiving prayers.

The following year I worked on revisions. I received line edits, talked to my agent over the phone, and had one teleconference with another agent who gave some positive input. I realized then that since I had an actual shot at publishing my book, I better do some homage to God. Without him, I would never had made it that far. There is a huge emphasis in my novel on love and life, two treasures of the Catholic Church.

To be as honest as I can be, I had no idea how to handle the relationship with my agent. I was so extremely paranoid about sounding my age and, with that, sounding ignorant. I lived in this tiny town, and I distinctly remember walking up to the Grotto and sitting on the hill in the cemetery. At my vantage point, I looked at Emmitsburg and reflected on how this woman in New York was reading my manuscript.

After a year, my agent told me through an email she could no longer represent young adult novels and would have to let me go. Naturally, I was upset. My dad was furious she did this through email, but after the two months of silence I knew it was coming. Still, it hurt. I suppose I took too long with my revisions, or maybe she had second thoughts about working with someone so young. I’m still not sure.

What I am sure of is that I will never take advantage of God's gifts again. It took Meg Cabot three years to hook an agent; I was happy when mine took less than three weeks, but I did not fully appreciate it. So for the past several months, I've sent out around eighteen query letters. Every now and then I get a nibble, I begin to reel one in, and I lose it. I never was good at fishing, anyway.

You must trust God that if He wants your novel (or your voice or your gifts) to be beheld by the world, He will make it happen. So please, keep me in your prayers.

Read other articles by Caroline Shields