A Fresh Start for an Old Project – “Allyson in the Islands” Reborn!

In the twenty-two months that I’ve been away from this blog, I have:

  • Completed my coursework for the Stanford Online Writing Certificate in Fiction
  • Scheduled my final requirement for that program—a ten-week one-on-one mentorship intended to kick off the revision of my rough draft of my novel, Dirty
  • Worked for a top-grossing mobile gaming company as a project manager (an experience so intense I got a bona fide case of burnout after fifteen months)
  • Spent ten days exploring Venice and its environs; eight days cruising Spain and Portugal; and two weeks workshopping my writing in Ireland
  • Received supportive, constructive feedback from an agent, a publisher, and an editor on my picture book manuscript for Allyson in the Islands

While all of the above has proven valuable and exciting for my creative growth, it’s the last bullet point I want to concentrate on in the remainder of this post.

I originally conceived of Allyson in the Islands as a picture book retelling of Alice in Wonderland set in the South Pacific. I wrote the following summary to include in query letters to agents and publishers:

Recently orphaned and sent to live in the Cook Islands with her mother’s mother, nine-year-old Allyson wants nothing more than to return to the civilized society of England, where she wore white gloves to tea with her father’s parents. In the tropics, she struggles with oppressive heat, unfamiliar food, and the strange ways of the Maori side of her family.

But a day-long adventure down a coconut crab hole introduces her to a stunning natural world, as well as to a cast of creatures all abuzz over an impending meeting with the Pa Ariki, the Queen of the Island. Through her journey from high coral cliff to low turquoise lagoon, Allyson learns that she has a special place in this world.

As the daughter of a grade school librarian, I possess a deep appreciation for the power of a richly illustrated book to corral the energy and attention of a young audience. I spent seven years in various positions at Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, working on such films as A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and How to Train Your Dragon. This exposure to the process of crafting visual stories with strong themes has greatly influenced my writing.

On my four visits to the Cook Islands, I was struck by the “through the looking-glass” aspect of the South Pacific: Lizards sport vivid patterns on their backs. Crabs grow to prehistoric proportions. Fish are rainbow-hued. And there are birds that repeat your every word. This sense of the environment and its inhabitants being simultaneously familiar and fantastic brought Lewis Carroll’s tale to mind.

Over the past two years, I’ve written nine drafts of Allyson. I submitted a version of the picture book manuscript to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in New York in February 2014, where I took part in a writers’ roundtable critique. It was in the course of this critique that I received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to both my concept and my composition skills from the agent and publisher leading the sessions, as well as from my fellow participants. A consensus emerged: the story is so rich and my writing so evocative that Allyson in the Islands would be best brought to life as an illustrated chapter book for early readers.

I started my job in the mobile games industry a week after the SCBWI Conference, and promptly fell down the rabbit hole of 24/7 project management. All of my scant spare time went to keeping up with the Stanford classes and working on my novel. But I never forgot Allyson.

In April of this year, I had the opportunity to participate in webinar on character development in children’s literature led by a fantastic freelance editor based in New York. On the strength of her insightful presentation, I contracted with her to review my latest picture book draft. She agreed with the previous assessments: I have an illustrated novel for middle-graders on my hands.

I am in now in the process of creating an outline for that novel based on the action and emotional beats of the original story. Meanwhile, my talented (and immensely patient!) collaborator, Nichole Wong Forti, has produced some amazing concept art and character designs. I am still deeply immersed in my adult novel, but I welcome the chance to take a break periodically from Dirty to work on a project that is so beautiful and full of light. It is my intention to have a solid draft of the expanded Allyson in the Islands manuscript ready for the writers’ roundtable session to be held at the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles in late July 2015. Please bear with me as I continue this adventure!

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