Written by Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor
Our featured SCBWI Ireland member for winter 2018 is Galway-based writer Betsy Cornwell. Betsy is originally from the United States but lives in a cottage in east Galway and teaches at the National University in Galway (NUIG).
Betsy has published three books with Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt since 2013 and has a fourth book launching in August 2018.
I asked Betsy a few questions to find out more about her experiences and writing process.
SCBWI: How long have you been writing and what or who was the inspiration for taking this career path? What made you decide on children’s literature? Did you ever write for adults?
Betsy: I remember wanting to be a writer when I was six years old: my teacher had the class create ‘books’ out of stapled construction paper, with our own stories and illustrations, and I was so proud to have made that little paper book. I always loved to read, and as a lonely, bullied kid, books were a real lifeline for me. That’s the biggest reason I write for children: as CS Lewis says, “we read to know we are not alone.”
I do write for adults, mostly nonfiction and personal essays. I am the story editor at Parabola Magazine, which looks at the world’s religions and mythic traditions. I love this work too, especially the essays, and I take my work for children and adults equally seriously. I think that’s the main thing, that you’re never ‘writing down’ to anyone.
SCBWI: How many manuscripts are sitting unpublished in a drawer? How many drafts do you do on average between first draft and submission? How long does the editing process usually take once you submit to the publisher?
Betsy: I have one and a half manuscripts in the recesses of my hard drive—the half-book I still have hopes for, but the completed one is a forgotten sequel in a series that I’ve since completed. It feels really painful to have a finished book collecting dust, but I learned so much from writing it – mostly from the mistakes I made in writing it – that I know all the effort and pain wasn’t wasted. I often talk to my students about “compost writing.” Some things might seem like trash when you first write them, and maybe they’re bound for the compost heap rather than the publisher, but they’ll still turn into great fertilizer for later ideas if you let them.
I usually do three real drafts, with innumerable little revisions in between them. I write a first draft as quickly as possible, both because I wrote my first book with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and because rough drafts are my least favourite part of the process—I want to get that over with as soon as I can. I then go away from the draft for at least a month, write an outline based on what I can remember (that helps me clarify what I care about most in the manuscript, as well as tighten my plot) and then do a full rewrite. The third draft gets into word choice, lyricism, and smaller structural issues.
Finally, once I’ve submitted that third draft to my publisher, it’s usually about eighteen months until publication. That process starts with an editorial letter that addresses higher-level concerns, then line notes, then copy editing, and finally pass pages (where we go over the formatted manuscript with a fine-tooth comb). By publication day, I am just over the moon to hold my book as a finished object—but I’ve read it over so many times that I don’t usually look inside.
SCBWI: How did you connect with your agent? What do you consider to be the benefits of having an agent? Any downsides?
Betsy: I found my agent in the traditional way, through the “slush pile”: I wrote lots of query letters for my finished novel and sent them to agents I found in directories, authors’ notes in books I like, and online. I got over thirty-five rejections in the course of about a year before I found my wonderful agent, Sara Crowe.
The biggest benefit of having an agent is certainly access: they know the editors at the big publishing houses, the ones that refuse to look at unagented manuscripts. Almost equally important, though, is the agent’s role as an advocate in the contract process. A good agent has the legal expertise to make sure a book deal is fair and as lucrative as possible—after all, she only makes a percentage of what her client makes, so she’s very motivated.
The downsides certainly would depend on a particular agent-writer relationship. I think for me, sometimes I get really excited about a new project and am desperate to move ahead, and then I go a bit mad waiting for feedback from my agent—or I get more substantive feedback than I bargained for. But having book professionals give me constructive criticism is one of the reasons I really wanted to go for traditional publishing. Please, tell me how to get better!
SCBWI: How do you juggle your time between writing, work, family (I know you have a toddler), travel, and daily life? How much time do you actually have for writing/editing/research?
Betsy: That’s an eternal question! I am so happy that I get to write most of the time, though not full time, now. On my writing days, I try to get my word count in as early as possible, so it’s not hanging over me and I can devote some time to other things. (That 1,000 words usually takes less time than I think it will, so long as I don’t get sucked into the procrastination mire.) I also teach writing at the local university once a week, and I find that my bright, creative, motivated students inspire me so much and keep me honest about my own work ethic. It’s really good for me to get out of the house for work once a week, too, since like many writers I’m a complete introvert.
In terms of family life, having my first baby last year has definitely thrown me for a loop. I could barely manage to read a book through my sleep deprivation for a few months, let alone write one! I am still trying to figure out that balance, but I think every parent struggles with that. Certainly I am more grateful for my writing than I used to be: it had become more work than joy by the time I had my baby, and now it’s a real touchstone, a source of creativity that reminds me of my identity outside of parenthood.
SCBWI: What made you join the SCBWI?
Betsy: Well, I haven’t taken enough advantage of this, but I really wanted to meet other children’s writers and illustrators! I moved to Ireland from the U.S. a few years ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time working hard and building a family and finding my feet. I am hoping that this year I can go to more SCBWI events and meet peers, colleagues, and of course new friends.
SCBWI: Are you comfortable with public speaking and performing for an audience? What did you do to learn those skills and overcome any nervousness?
Betsy: I was a bit of a theatre kid in high school—I mostly did lighting and tech, but I acted a little bit too, and I sang in a few choirs. Those were all good enough practice that readings and public speaking don’t really make me nervous. I find that talking about writing comes more naturally to me than talking about most other things. As I said, I’m pretty introverted at heart, but talking about my passions with other people who care about them is exhilarating. When I’m doing a reading or an author talk, I try to remember that everyone else there is interested in the same things I am.
SCBWI: I’m a big fan of Selkie legends. How did you come up with the story idea for Tides? What drew you to that particular topic? What’s your favourite aspect of the book?
Betsy: Selkies have always been one of my very favourite stories, too. I wanted to be a mermaid when I was little (well, I still do), but when I read about selkies, I immediately thought they were much better. Seals are wonderful animals, of course, and there’s often a sense of melancholy in selkie stories that is both romantic and tragic, and those are some of my favourite storytelling flavours.
So one summer when I was in college, I worked on a steamship in New Hampshire that sailed out to some remote islands called the Isles of Shoals—they’re a bit like the Aran Islands here in Galway. There is a large colony of seals there, and I started thinking about the selkie stories I loved growing up, and imagining them in a modern setting on these beautiful, austere little islands.
SCBWI: I read in another interview that you consider Mechnica to be “gaslight fantasy” rather than “pure” steampunk. I love Nick’s mechanical engineering skills and her creations. How did you decide to do a Cinderella variation, and why did you choose the setting and time period that you did?
Betsy: Mechanica focuses more on character development and its magical aspects than on the technical jargon of a lot of “pure” steampunk, so I am always slightly afraid that steampunk fans who want to read detailed descriptions of giant robots are going to be disappointed. But my main character, Nick, is a brilliant engineer and inventor, and that is crucial to the story. She’s a Cinderella figure who decides that the well-oiled machine of fairy-tale happy endings isn’t for her, so she kind of reaches inside her own narrative and breaks it down and rebuilds it into the kind of life she wants, not what other people think is right for her.
SCBWI: In Venturess, I really liked how Nick worked for what she has, and she is her own person, strong and independent. I love the addition of the airships and other steampunk elements, and how you deal with the darker side of Victorian colonialism with the mistreatment of the Fae. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but what was the process that helped you develop this second story?
Betsy: I originally planned to make Mechanica a trilogy, but when I started writing Venturess, I wanted to challenge myself to increase my pacing and the action content of my stories. I quickly realized that what I thought was two books’ worth of plot could easily be just one! It’s true that a lot of the major plot points are spoilers, so I’ll just say that I did know what I had planned when I was writing Mechanica, even though it initially came out as a standalone. That happens a lot: publishers test the water with one book to see if it will sell, and only then will they make offers on sequels. I often tell this story to advise my students to write “standalones with series potential,” since those will be much easier to sell as debut authors than whole series.
SCBWI: You’re originally from the United States. What brought you to Ireland? How do you find life here compared to where you were? Did you encounter any kind of culture shock or find things quite different to what you expected?
Betsy: I came to Ireland in 2012, right after I finished my MFA program. In theory, I was here to research my selkie book, but in practice, I pretty much was on holiday. I did a work exchange at Kilronan Hostel on the Aran Islands, making beds in exchange for room and board and writing a little bit in the late mornings. While I was there, I met a handsome Galway man—and we eloped a year later. I’ve been here ever since, writing and making a life and a family.
I’m from a part of the United States that has a lot of Irish heritage and Irish expats, so I didn’t experience too much culture shock at all. I always say that it was stranger moving from New Hampshire to Indiana, where I went to grad school, than it was moving to Ireland! I felt at home in Galway right away, and to be honest I wanted to move here before I even met my husband.
SCBWI: What is your background that prepared you to be a writer, editor, and teacher? What do you teach, where, and how often?
Betsy: I started teaching as part of my scholarship at Notre Dame, where I got my MFA in creative writing: I taught a fiction seminar and I worked as a tutor in the writing centre. I was surprised to find how much I really love teaching, and what a vital part of my creative process it has become. It took me a while to find a teaching job at an Irish university, and my writing noticeably improved once I started teaching again. I only teach one course per semester, which is a nice balance—it lets me get to know my students fairly well, and it still leaves me time for my own work. I also do consulting and mentoring for The Inkwell Group here in Ireland, which is a wonderful kind of teaching because it’s completely one-on-one and I can work from home.
SCBWI: What tips do you have for writers who want to improve their craft and get published?
Betsy: Read as much as you possibly can, in every genre you can stand—and some you can’t (at the very least you’ll learn what not to do!). A varied reading diet makes for a well-rounded writer. Write almost every day. Some days you won’t make it, and don’t beat yourself up about that. On the days you can manage it, even a few sentences are infinitely better than not writing at all.
SCBWI: What are you working on now that The Forest Queen is about launch?
Betsy: I have a couple of proposals incubating with my agent and publisher right now—I’m not allowed to talk about them quite yet, but I am very excited! Meanwhile, I write short essays for Parabola Magazine, and I’m teaching and spending all the time I can with my nine-month-old.
Thanks very much for taking the time to answers my many questions, Betsy!
The Forest Queen will be published in early August 2018.
Betsy Cornwell is an American writer living in the west of Ireland, where she also teaches fiction seminars at NUIG. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or visit her website at betsycornwell.com.
Tides: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2013. Cover artist: Jolene Monheim
Mechanica: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2015. Cover Artist: Manuel Sumberac
Venturess: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2017. Cover Artist: Manuel Sumberac
The Forest Queen: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2018. Cover Artist: Sarah J. Coleman