July 24, 2020
Welcome to the Winners' Circle where we celebrate the success of our ICL and IFW Contest winners. Today we're celebrating Sherry Miller whose entry Without Whimsey came in Third Place in our Middle Grade Historical Fiction Contest!
What contest was your winning entry submitted to?
Middle Grade Historical Fiction Story
How many writing contests have you entered?
I've entered many throughout the years, mostly for play-writing. Sometimes I can't resist entering. It depends on the topic and since I have lots of writing on the shelves... I've been lucky. I've won or been in the top ten of six contests—three regional, one state, and two national. This is my 7th win. I also entered a call for columnists contest at my local newspaper once and was one of six chosen. Demanding but fun for the year I worked there.
Please give the title of your entry and a short summary of the story.
My novel, Without Whimsey, isn't just about a slave girl in 1850. It shows how separation from her beloved whimsical brother affects her and the psychological way a young girl deals with total upheaval as she's pushed onto the Underground Railroad—alone. Meeting 12 year-old abolitionist, Wild Bill Hickok, gives her new hope.
What inspired your winning entry?
Story ideas come from so many places. What you see, what you hear, what you feel. I put so many ideas on paper and can't possibly use all of them in a life time. For this particular story, I was having lunch with my Mother at the Public Landing in the historic Gaylord Building in Joliet, Illinois. Next to it is a museum dedicated to local history. I browsed about and just happened to pick up a booklet with one paragraph about how the abolitionist Hickok family helped slaves along the Underground. And Wild Bill was a big part of it! I had a copy made and ended up writing an award-winning play and now a novel, Without Whimsey. Unpublished yet. Hope that changes soon.
How has entering this contest helped your writing?
For one thing, I kept entering several of ICL's contests. As the wins eluded me, I tried harder, did more revisions, and kept entering. This, in turn, improved my writing. I was so surprised when my name appeared on the screen as a winner. My heart pounded. And the excitement is still with me. The workshop is so helpful, too. Judges and teachers scrutinize your work. Along with your peers. And contests challenge us to follow directions to a t. Most of the workshop feedback is informative and positive.
How did the critique in the Winners' Workshop help you?
It made me aware of when my sentence fragments worked. I was assured that fragments were okay as long as it fit the dialogue. And I was so happy that my character's (Wild Bill) dialect was accepted as okay. There was a question about whether a word I used was historically correct for the time period. The word was "kidnapped." Turns out it was used at the time. I looked it up. But what if it wasn't? For historical novels, we must go the extra mile, do the research. This workshop inspired me to send this book out to agents and publishers again.
Are you a full-time writer? If not, what is your "day job"?
Since I had a full-time job as a flight attendant, I freelanced part-time. I wrote mostly profiles and travel articles for magazines and newspapers across the country. I'm concentrating more on fiction, though I've always dabbled in play-writing and stories. Full-time is not the right word. I'm always jotting down ideas and sketching out scenes. But time at the actual computer is part-time. Perhaps I should change that.
How long have you been writing?
All my life. And professionally for more than 40 years. Rummaging through my things, I found a query I wrote to the Saturday Evening Post Magazine when I was 10 years old. I had offered them a story about Jack Frost. I burst out laughing. I wondered if their editor was baffled about how I'd go about getting an interview with this wintry character.
What will you do with your piece now that it's been recognized?
I worked on this novel for several years. Then...I entered a workshop of agents looking for new work. They took only 100 writers nationwide. I was one of those. I was so thrilled. The agent worked with me and the promise of publication loomed large. But she changed her mind, ultimately telling me that "historical novels for children are hard to sell." I can handle rejection well usually. But this was a biggie. Now...after this ICL win, I'm encouraged to revise one more time and send it out again. And again.
Any fun plans for the prize money?
The first time I was published in a magazine—an interview with Dale Messick, cartoonist and creator of Brenda Starr Reporter—I took a photo of the check and framed it. Of course, I cashed it. Should I take a picture of this check? Think we'll celebrate with a nice dinner out and put the rest into shopping my book around. Always celebrate your wins. It inspires you to continue.
What do you do when you're feeling discouraged or blocked? Do you have any tips for your fellow writers?
I'm not blocked usually. In fact, I have too many ideas, too many scenes, and characters sketched on paper. Choosing my main concentration is sometimes difficult. Discouragement comes when I feel I didn't put my story together well. And have to revise without becoming too attached to my own words and story. I have to stop myself from revising the same chapter over and over. It hurts to cut a character or pages of dialog. I used to brood a little bit after a rejection. Now, I allow myself only one day of self-pity. Then, I get back to work. And get excited again about improving it. For me, once I send it out, I have to work on another project. But not too many because I can stretch myself too thin. Keep sending out your work and keep a log of where you send it and why you were rejected. Sometimes a laugh works. Because sometimes the rejectors have funny absurdities themselves.
If you could go to the yard sale of any character in the history of children's literature, whose would you go to, and what would you buy?
With so many wonderful award-winning books available, you'd think I'd choose one of those. My favorite authors are Avi, Katherine Paterson, and Natalie Babbitt. Famous for Tuck Everlasting, I preferred Natalie's Eyes of the Amaryllis, a mystical haunting book. When it comes to characters, though, I have to say Peter Pan. (Natalie Babbitt told me once that her favorite character was Alice, Alice in Wonderland). Peter Pan's yard sale would be full of Indian items, Captain Hook's island map, Tinker Belle's bell, a pirate flag, Peter's shadow, and fairy dust. I still don't want to grow up. And the thought of flying free, first stop Never Neverland, is always a fantasy. My main purchase would be the fairy dust, of course. Next sale? Madeleine. Her independence, non-conformity, and curiosity actually inspired me to study in Paris at 19 years old.
What do you like ICL and our opportunities for writers?
More than classes and school, I salute ICL for offering contests. As writers, we are challenged to do our best when we can compete in a healthy way. Learning and discipline like this tags along when entering the professional world. The workshop leaders are not just doing their jobs and giving feedback; they put their hearts into it. So even if you don't win, you still win.
Are you our next contest winner? There's $1,300 of prize money up for grabs! Check out our current contests on our Contests Page.