Carolyn Givens is a good friend of FH editor, Janna Barber. They met at Hutchmoot several years ago, but got to know each other better when they attended a writer’s conference together last year, and stayed in the same cheap motel. Carrie recently self-published a book for middle grade readers called The King’s Messenger. She works at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. In addition, she works with Story Warren, allies in imagination for families, and with ArtsCharlotte, which seeks to nourish the soul of the city through the arts.
What’s the inspiration behind The King’s Messenger?
I tell people that I “meet” my characters, because they have a tendency to arrive fully formed in my imagination just waiting for a story to live out. Smuggins is no exception–one day in a Great Christian Writers class in college we were studying Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness”–that begins, “When I consider how my light is spent…”–and we got to the final lines: “His state is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed/ and post o’er land and ocean without rest:–/ They also serve who only stand and wait.” And there stood Smuggins, an over eager messenger for the King who needed to learn that sometimes waiting is the hardest task of all. It started as a short story, and for a while that was how stories came to me–one at a time, usually whenever there was some lesson I was learning. Most of them were triggered by a specific line of poetry or Scripture, or a sermon or message. Over time, they grew into chapters, and when I had nine, and one was a final chapter, I knew I needed just one more to round it out. Later on, I went to chapel at the college where I worked and when it was done, my flat mate Christine came running up to me, “That was a Smuggins story!” she said. I’d though the exact same thing and had been sketching out the penultimate chapter in my notebook, rather than taking notes on the message!
Is this the first book you’ve finished writing, or just the first book you’ve published? Can you tell us about any other projects you’ve been working on, and whether or not they’re connected to this one?
I think The King’s Messenger was my first completed book manuscript. It was a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure I finished it before Rosefire, which is probably my “next” book–whatever that means. That’s another one that took a long time–about five years of actively working on it–to be as done as it is now. Rosefire is not connected to The King’s Messenger. It’s a YA fantasy novel, a messiah story.
The King’s Messenger is a standalone. If there were more adventures for Smuggins to have, they would need to happen in between the current chapters. I wouldn’t label The King’s Messsenger as a full-blown allegory, but there are definitely allegorical elements and the place where it ends is a story that has yet to be told in history. (Though my niece wrote “the next” story on a notepad the night after I finished reading it to her, so I know there’s some good opportunities for fan fiction there.)
As I said, Rosefire is next, but I don’t have a timeline for that. It still needs some shaping and I haven’t made any decisions regarding its publication. My hope would be sometime next year. And there are other stories in varying stages of “done-ness” that I need to turn my attention to. Sometimes the characters come calling quicker than I can write them down.
What led you to publish the book yourself, and what has that process been like for you?
The King’s Messenger was done for quite a few years before I did anything with it. Whenever I spoke to an editor or agent about it, the primary response I got was, “I like this, but I don’t know how I’d sell it.” As I mentioned above, there are allegorical elements (which is totally out of vogue, even though kids love allegories), there are fable elements (also out of vogue), and it’s a story for kids–that adults also love. So basically no one knows how to categorize it. It falls “between the shelves,” to use a phrase I hear a lot. I generally describe it as “parables,” meaning stories that can stand on their own, yet also point to bigger truths.
For all those reasons, I didn’t know what to do with it. I’ve followed the publishing industry pretty closely since 2008, so I saw the bubble burst and the options for authors narrow further and further. Recently I’ve seen the resurgence of the boutique publisher and have been really excited about how many small presses there are now, who are publishing really good stuff for smaller audiences. Using the expertise of long-time publishing professionals, yet working within the low-budget strictures of having no capital seems to be a great model for publishing these days. I looked for a while among those small presses for a home for Smuggins, but there just wasn’t a right fit who had space in their schedule.
Then last year I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids and went to a session on independent publishing. The panel was comprised of authors who had gone the independent route, as well as some who were traditionally published. I appreciated their expertise and the fact that they didn’t bash traditional publishing. Someone on that panel talked about the struggle to get a traditional publisher to even look at you when you’re a new writer–especially if you don’t already have a strong social media following. Some of the authors shared how they had self-published something small–a shorter book–as a way to get their name out there and begin to garner a following. Then they were able to take that growth with them when they pitched their next idea to a publisher, and found they had a better standing. I had a lightbulb-over-my-head moment and realized self-publishing could be the perfect solution for The King’s Messenger.
Between that moment and my tracking of the indie publishing and print on demand (POD) world, it felt like an opportune time to self-publish. The quality of POD keeps going up and the price keeps going down. Some of the early stigmas around self-publishing have faded and there seems to be a recognition (among audiences, if not among publishers yet) that amid the morass of ALL the books that have been self published, there’s a percentage rising to the top, and they’re often the books that fall between the shelves. Yet they find their audience through the author’s networks, and they have good lives.
I had good connections for learning the system of indie publishing, and the skill set for book layout myself. I great editors and illustrators and designers as friends. I was able to reach out to them, to hire some of them and be blessed by the gifts of time others gave me. I met Stephen Hesselman, my illustrator, through The Rabbit Room and we’d become friends on Facebook and Instagram. He began posting a series of sketches that were different than some of his previous work and I loved them. I was raised on Garth Williams and had long had the idea of pen-and-ink illustrations for The King’s Messenger. Stephen was a godsend, and he was able to hone his own craft through the process, relying on the generous feedback of his fellow illustrator friends. Any book, I think, takes a village, but a self-published children’s book with basically no budget may take a small city.
Where do you currently go to find inspiration and/or develop your craft?
In terms of inspiration, I tend to start with a thematic idea. There’s usually something brewing in the back of my mind and eventually a story comes together, coalescing around that theme in some way. Then the characters who come knocking. I’ve got one work in progress that I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve got a big idea and two characters I like who need a story to live out; now I’m trying to figure out what world they live in and exactly what their story will be.
One way I started was taking Jonathan Rogers’ Writing Close to the Earth online writing class last summer. I asked Jonathan if it was okay to use the various writing exercises he assigned to develop a concrete world for these characters to live in, rather than using them to reflect on my own world. He was game, and helped me hone in on the textures and qualities of the world. I’m still writing random scenes, seeing what comes together for an overarching plot, but I’ve got the world pretty well set. As you can probably tell, I don’t necessarily write in order! Once I get rolling, I’ve usually got the big turns sketched out, but how I get from one to the next is pretty flexible. Sometimes I write a pivotal scene in a notebook, then have to dig back through the notes to find it again when I finally get there months (or years!) later.
I’m working to form some sort of digital collaborative group inspired by Diana Glyer’s Bandersnatch. So far it’s my sister and I meeting quasi-regularly via FaceTime, but I’m beginning to meet some others who may be interested in joining us. I love digging into ideas with others, so I find it helpful to have a handful of friends who I can bounce ideas off of and collaborate with.
What are your hopes for this book, or what might happen someday that would make you feel like this book was a success?
Success is a complicated idea. For me, it’s a matter of love more than a matter of numbers. I love Smuggins and Misha and the King and I want others to have the chance to love them too. I have, over the years, delighted in sharing these stories with friends. Putting the book out there in published form is just an extension of that delight. My former flat mate Christine, who is one of my biggest encouragers, asked me the day after I released the book how it felt. “Fun,” I said. “I’m having fun seeing people enjoy it.” I hope that love can remain my meter for success. If so, then I may have already achieved it. My friend stopped by my office the other day and told me about reading it to her kids as they drank root beer floats. “It was a perfect moment. I wanted to take a picture, but I knew stopping to capture it would ruin the moment.” She was delighting in sharing my story with her kids, and that felt like success to me.