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Author Up Close: Rachel Toalson–Tackling the Hard Stuff, and Highlighting the Good Stuff

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Rachel Toalson is an especially prolific poet, essayist, and award-winning author of picture books and of middle grade and young adult fiction. Lest you think writing books for young humans means toning down reality, Rachel has mastered the art of hard topics — how to convey them, how to guide a young mind through them — in a way that helps to instill hope and to set young people on a path of functional thinking.

“Toalson handles difficult, complex subjects with nuance and care, never losing sight of who her readers are, and striking the delicate balance between honesty and hope.”

—Jordan Leigh Zwick, The Book Seller (Grass Valley, CA)

Her next work of middle grade fiction, The First Magnificent Summer, is the story of an awakening–of sexism, as a twelve-year-old girl realizes her own estranged father may be treating her as Other because of her gender. It releases on May 30th.

If you need some inspiration, please settle in; you won’t be disappointed. Many thanks to Rachel for sharing her journey and her many profound insights about the writing life.

GW: Thanks for agreeing to share your writing and publishing experiences with the Writer Unboxed community. I like to start by asking writers about their author origin story; it’s kind of like a superhero origin story but with a pen. What’s yours?

RT: The sole purpose of my first dabbles in story was getting me out of trouble. I was an imaginative, precocious middle child with an older brother and a younger sister. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, which meant trouble was right at our fingertips. After a Pecan Battle (we were supposed to be gathering pecans so my grandmother could make her delicious pecan pie), my sister ran into the house wailing. I’d launched the fated pecan that hit her brow, but I made up an elaborate story that blamed my grandmother’s boyfriend for the wound that required ice and a Band-Aid. There was a giant hole in my story: My grandmother’s boyfriend hadn’t been outside all morning.

But I was good at telling stories. I told them for entertainment. To everyone—my siblings, my mother, the kids at school. I documented things that happened on the playground. I retold important events with a little flair and exaggeration. And in the margins, I worked on my Great American Novel at the age of seven. It sounded a lot like Little House on the Prairie, which my mother was reading to us at the time.

My mother saw a spark (and probably a way to get me to stop talking so much). She made sure I always had sharpened pencils and a stack of stapled computer paper. I told everyone I knew I’d be a writer someday.

In high school some amazing English teachers affirmed my writing gift. In college my love for it exploded under the direction of some magnificent professors. And I found my people, which is important in any origin story. Who are we without our people?

I’ve been through some trauma in my life. Writing helps me process the narrative and reframe it. That’s probably the simplest answer to why I keep picking up a pen.

GW: I don’t think it would be an understatement to say you’re a prolific author. Tell us a bit about your journey to publication; how did you land your agent? Your first book deal? And, how have you managed to be as prolific as you are with six children at home?!

RT: I spent the first decade of my career as a journalist and an editor for some Texas newspapers. But after the birth of my sixth child, I faced a job lay-off. After catastrophizing, as I’m wont to do, my husband said, “Why don’t you go for your dream?” And I thought, Yeah. Why not?

All those years I’d been writing books, of course. I’d written two adult novels that went nowhere—no agent even asked for a full manuscript (Today Me recognizes they weren’t any good). But I had another novel—one written for kids—that I thought might be something special.

It was. I queried twelve agents I found through Twitter’s #MSWL and Writer’s Digest listings. Ten requested the full manuscript. I got two offers and signed with my agent in 2016. We went out on sub with my first book, a novel in verse called The Colors of the Rain, in early 2017 and had an offer by May. It published in September 2018.

However. Traditional publishing is a slow process. I’m a very productive writer. So I also self-publish fiction under a pen name and write poetry and essay collections under my full name.

As to how I stay productive with so many kids, I send them to public school so I can write. Half-joking aside, I protect my writing time. Writing centers me and helps me process emotions and heals old wounds. My family gets a better version of me, and I get to live my passion and dream. Everybody wins when I get to write.

One more note: Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided that his career was not more important than my career, just because he’s a man. We do what we can to support each other and raise our kids jointly.

MG_2420-cropped-300x295.pngGW: How has publishing been different than you’d anticipated? Is there something you didn’t know back then you wish someone in the business had told you?

RT: I was only marginally aware of how much patience traditional publishing would require. In theory, I knew it could take a year or more to sell a book, then a year or more to see it published. But in practice, I found myself unpleasantly surprised—maybe because I’m a very productive, task-oriented person, and I write quickly.

Waiting is hard for me. And I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in how long I’ve had to wait for books to sell and to see them publish.

Because I’m such a productive writer, I have a huge bottleneck; I have nine middle grade, five young adult, two chapter book, and three poetry manuscripts ready to go to my agent. But it’s not the right time yet. So I have to wait. It’s torturous.

To help manage the bottleneck, I also self-publish books, under a pen name. It helps me maintain a modicum of control and care for myself mentally and emotionally. Writing is therapeutic for me. So is publishing.

Also: We, the writers, are in charge. I know it doesn’t feel that way when we’re in the querying trenches or out on submission; those are vulnerable places to be. But the truth is, we don’t have to take the first offer that comes our way. If an agent or an editor is asking for an edit to your book that doesn’t feel “right,” you don’t have to take the deal. It’s your book. Agents don’t have a job without writers. Editors don’t have books without writers. It’s not about finding an agent or editor; it’s about finding the right one. I know I’m in a privileged place to say that, being an agented writer with multiple books published. But it’s something I wish someone had told me in the beginning.

GW: In a business where so much is out of our control, what do you do take control of your writing career?

RT: This is a great question, because there is so much out of your control in this business—particularly the traditional publishing side, where the gates keeping you out can feel endless. None of us is in control of how readers respond to what we publish. That’s a very scary place to be, for most of us. It takes guts to publish just about anything.

What is in our control is getting words down on a page. We control whether or not we make it a goal to write for an hour and a half every day—and whether or not we do it.

Related to that, and something that’s very important to me: we control our improvement as a writer. I want to be excellent at what I do. I want to make sure I’m not stagnating and that I continue learning and growing as a writer (and a human being). So every New Year’s I assess my writing strengths and weaknesses. Then I make a plan for improvement. We can’t control how readers interpret our books or what they take away from them or whether they like them. But we can work to write the absolute best book we can write today.

Lastly, we control our mindset. We can choose to see things positively or negatively. We can decide the world is against us or for us. We can gather up all the broken places in our lives and patch them up on the page, in hopes that someone else can do the same in their lives because of our stories. Maybe that’s a poetic way of saying we control our vision, what we hope our books will do in the world. Vision can carry us a long way in this business, because it’s hope.

GW: What advice would you give a newbie writer who someday wants to be doing what you’re doing?

RT: I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of yourself. This business can be brutal. It’s a business of rejections, and that wears on you. It makes you question practically everything—your abilities, your vision, your stories, your purpose, your hopes and dreams. Get therapy. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Find writer friends who understand the business and how hard it can be, and connect with them regularly. And give yourself permission to step away for a while if you need to. No one can do what you do quite like you can—and we need you and your stories.

Write every day or every other day or every Monday—whatever works for you. It’s great to hear about other writers’ processes, but you’ll have to find your own. And that takes practice and experimentation.

Write the stories you want to read. Love what you do. And if you don’t love it, figure out why and what would make you love it. Support other writers. Talk about great books. Read as much as you can, all over the place, not just in the genre or age group you write. Listen to audiobooks while you’re washing dishes or slicing onions or running an errand. Take a poetry book with you to read in the line at the grocery store. Put your phone away.

Try to make the world a better, kinder place with your art.

I want to say so much more, but I’ll end with this: Don’t give up. I know this business is hard and sometimes thankless. Sometimes you’ll think, Why am I working so hard at something that matters so little? But you and your stories do matter. And I have to believe that those who persevere will ultimately see their dreams and hopes become reality.

Many thanks to Rachel Toalson for sharing so generously with us today, and for providing the inspiration many of us need on the regular. To learn more about her and any of her many works, including her upcoming The First Magnificent Summer, visit racheltoalson.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

WU community: Do you write to help process your life? Has that work brought enlightenment? What has your writing journey taught you? 

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