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Writers on Writing: Featuring Yael Mermelstein

By: Susie Garber

Published in Hamodia Newspaper: August 2011

How does Yael Mermelstein, well known author, conjure up her magic? What secret alchemy does she perform to create those masterpieces of writing we enjoy? This series on writing will explore writer’s thoughts and secrets about their craft.

            Mix a ton of perseverance and passion with a hearty serving of hard work , a heaping portion of imagination and talent and voila, that is part of the life story of Yael Mermelstein. She grew up in Queens, New York and she currently resides in Beitar Illit in Eretz Yisroel with her husband and children.

            She recalls that one of her first writing highlights occurred in second grade after she composed a haiku poem about the sky and clouds. The teacher liked it so much she actually read it aloud to the class. Yael experienced that first surge of the joy of the writer---completing a piece of writing and knowing your writing has captured an audience. This success spurred her to continue writing. Her drive to write followed her through high school, where she volunteered to craft college essays for her friends. Finding the perfect word and constructing an organized thoughtful essay presented an intriguing challenge that Yael enjoyed immensely.

            When she met her future husband she mentioned she was a writer. “I even brought some samples of my work on our second date,” she says.   They married and her family began to grow. “In the beginning,” Yael says, “Writing fell off the radar.  I was so busy tending to my husband and children.”  But her husband encouraged her to start writing againYael threw herself into her writing, eventually publishing articles regularly.

            But she  still had other dreams.  She wanted to write a book.. She self- trained, reading books on techniques and writing strategies. She read a plethora of children’s literature, analyzing the author’s craft. She read with the lens of an author examining the types of characters who inhabited the stories. She studied character development. She asked herself if the characters appeared real and if so how did the author create this verisimilitude? She explored how the book was crafted. She analyzed its architecture- the way the plot flowed and the pace of the story. She noticed the story arc. She took special note of the character’s problems. What type of issue did they face and what sorts of obstacles did they encounter. How did they overcome their challenges? In strong literature the characters change and grow. She studied how the author portrayed this growth and change. She paid special attention to dialogue. Did the dialogue sound like real conversation? How did the author accomplish this? Did the dialogue sound true to the character of the person speaking? Did it move the story forward or provide information? She noticed that dialogue needed to do one of these jobs or it failed to add to the story. She observed the types of words and descriptions the author employed. She also studied how the author constructed her beginning and her ending. In addition, she analyzed the voice in the writing. She noticed if the style sounded fresh and interesting or hackneyed and stale. For Yael, strong writing provided a model for her growth as a writer. The authors of strong writing became her writing mentors.

            In 2007, she set a goal of entering the prestigious Sydney Taylor Manuscript  writing contest for a Jewish themed children’s novel. In order to reach her goal she worked out a disciplined plan. She printed out a calendar penciling in a word count that had to be met every day over the course of many months. She kept to that calendar. When she had a 35,000 word manuscript she showed it to an author and critique partner at an Israeli writing event. The author asked her, “What does your character want?” Discouraged, Yael realized her story lacked a plot. After writing 35,000 words and discovering it wasn’t good enough, many people would give up. Yael knew less than three weeks remained until the contest. But she took the challenge and thought about what her main character wanted.  With Hashem’s help she found the solution.  She rewrote the book and submitted her manuscript. She knew contestants were supposed to be notified by April 15th,   so when the mail didn’t come by that date, she figured it was all over.  . But the very next morning she woke up to a fabulous email from the Sydney Taylor Committee letting her know that she’d won! She called her husband at work to share the good news. He said, “No!” she said, “yes! He said no. She said yes until he finally realized she was telling the truth. He brought home a pizza to celebrate .She was flown to Arizona for the awards ceremony..

 

            Yael majored in and received her masters in science in Jewish secondary education. Although she enjoyed teaching for several years, her love for writing and her husband’s encouragement led her to phase out teaching and to concentrate on writing. She feels blessed that the writing world (the world of Jewish publishing) opened up so much more six years ago and this allowed her to find many places to submit her work.  In addition to writing and editing, Yael is also invited to speaking engagements, gives writing workshops and coaches writers one on one.  “It helps to keep me in contact with humans who don’t emit a radioactive glow like my computer screen does,” she says.

            To begin a story she often thinks of an interesting idea. For example a short story she wrote grew from the idea of an elderly couple travelling back in time. She sometimes takes a one line idea and builds the character and plot around it.

            In terms of editing her work, she recommends letting something sit for a few weeks, or even months for patient folks,  and then revisiting it with fresh eyes. However, writing as a job means   deadlines. She’s lucky if she can let it sit overnight. . She occasionally asks someone to read it like her husband or a friend if she needs specific advice.

            Her hard work yielded and continues to yield many successes including the following: The Car that Goes Far, Hachai ( for young children), The Stupendous Adventure of Shragi and Shia; Artscroll (for 8-12 year olds), Moonlight a collection of short fiction; Targum Press, Second Chances ; Artscroll, a novel, and her newest books, a teen fantasy novel Switched; Artscroll and a children’s book Izzy the Whiz ; Kar Ben Publishers. When asked which of her books she calls her favorite, she could not choose one. However she feels particularly excited about her soon to be released teen fantasy novel. Switched, published by Artscroll, which breaks new ground for the Jewish publishing world with this genre. She sees a need in general for kosher thoughtful page turners for religious  teens - like her new novel.

            She enjoys writing every type of genre from realistic urban fiction, to historical fiction, fantasy fiction, children’s books, social satire, nonfiction, interviews, short stories, and more.

            Many people ask Yael how she schedules her day and where she finds the privacy to work. Well, she works at a desk in her bedroom. Her writing routine starts at 10:30 am (after her morning exercise class!) until 1:30 pm when her children return from school. She then takes care of her family until 10:00 pm. From 10:00 pm until midnight and often later,  she writes

            The hardest part of writing is when she needs to meet many deadlines and she is trying to balance family and work. But there is nothing more rewarding than reading the finished product and wondering – did I really write that?  ” She also enjoys revising- fine tuning to find the best words. She welcomes a search for a better metaphor or adjective. She tries to avoid big words. She wants to sound intelligent, but  wants to remain reader friendly.

                        If she finds herself stuck in the middle of a story, Yael asks her husband or children for ideas of what happens next. Once she was writing a story about two estranged sisters cleaning out their parent’s house after shiva. She knew their personalities and situation but she didn’t know what would happen to bring them together. Her husband suggested adding an intruder into the story and that drove the story forward. She often finds ideas for her children’s books from her own children. Ideas come from the most interesting places – a random newspaper article, looking out the bus window and catching sight of something interesting, a friend’s funny story that sows a seed for a fictional story, or a character she meets in her exercise class that stands out as someone who can be the protagonist of a story.  She feels ideas are everywhere if you open your mind to them.

            Rejection comes with the territory of writing. Still receiving a rejection note hurts. Writing comes from inside of us. It’s our creative expression. If an expert like an editor rejects it, many people find this discouraging. Yael Mermelstein used rejection as an impetus to work harder and keep trying. When she first started submitting work, she wanted to publish articles for a particular Jewish publication, but the editor continued to reject her attempts over and over again. She finally built up courage to ask them why they rejected her work. Their response pained her. They said her work was just not inspiring. She decided to study their articles meticulously, analyzing the style of the writers. She read with a question in mind. What made their articles different? She discovered how the articles were written and she tried again. They accepted her submission now they call her for articles!.

            Her first fiction story that she sent to an editor came back with the words,”Too melodramatic” in the rejection letter. Yael believed in her story. She submitted it to a different editor and that editor also rejected it. She still believed in her story and she sent it to someone else who said they loved it and they published the story. Sometimes she advises, it’s a matter of finding the right editor who clicks with your work. However if you continuously receive many rejections, you man need to go back to honing your craft.

Yael’s Advice to Writers:

            Writing is a craft like any other and it takes a lot of dedication and hard work..

You don’t need a degree but you do need to educate yourself. You need to give yourself a degree! It’s a field for those who have a lot of self discipline and motivation.  As in any field, you need an apprenticeship.

Yael is always learning. She spends scores of hours learning and refining the craft of writing. Her learning time involves reading prolifically to study technique and keeping tabs on the publishing field by reading publishers journals. She reads methodically, first reading the book to enjoy the story and overall effect and then rereading to analyze craft. She states, “A writer needs to be driven and passionate about writing. It would be difficult to write and work this hard if you found it drudgery.”

            Aside from recommending quality reading as an avenue for professional development, Yael. also suggests finding a critique partner. Having a critique partner means that you share you and another writer agree to switch your work with one another and give each other feedback, both positive and negative. ” Don’t be afraid to let someone critique your work. You don’t have to listen to everything everyone tells you. Pay attention to comments and notice if you receive the same comments from a few readers.” She learned from critiques. One agent told her that her main character was not likeable in a book she wrote. She realized this was a problem with many of her main characters and she rewrote, adding more redeeming qualities.  She also learned a similar lesson from an editor at Hamodia who mentioned that a character in her story was not sympathetic. She rewrote and the story became richer. She also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers And Illustrators (SCBWI) where she found like-minded writers and critique partners.

When questioned how she feels about writing, she responded. “I’m passionate and driven to write. I love it and it’s also my job.” Yael related, “Chazal tell us “Ein davar haomed bifnai haratzon”. Nothing stands in the way of our will. I have always willed to be a writer, and now I finally am”!

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