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Former Huntsville English teacher debuts young adult novel 'This Is Not a Drill'
It’s a teacher’s worst nightmare.
A classroom of first-graders. A mad man with a gun.
But for Beck McDowell, this nightmare made her dream come true.
The former Huntsville High School English teacher never saw a gun in any of her classrooms, but she did have a few nightmares about that grim scenario. Those nightmares helped fuel “This Is Not a Drill,” Beck’s debut young adult novel from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA Inc.
Beck will talk about the novel and her writer’s journey of hard work, smashed plates, and lots of luck – bad and good – on Sunday, Oct. 28, at 2 p.m. at the main Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, 915 Monroe St. Admission is free, and books will be available for sale and signing.
Beck’s also the author of an unpublished novel currently taking up drawer space and a nonfiction title, “Last Bus Out,” the story of a young man from the projects who stole a school bus and rescued hundreds of people from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She recently sold another YA novel to Penguin, working title “Immortelle,” set in and around Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans’ Garden District.
Beck’s writing dreams are taking off now, but she admits the early road was rocky. A couple of big rocks and some cheap china smoothed the path.
“During the rejection process, I realized I was real cranky,” she told me. “I was internalizing the process.”
When she received a rejection notice, she smashed clearance and flea market plates on those big rocks in her backyard. “There’s something really cathartic about the physical action of breaking something,” she said.
Beck was generous with her china therapy. When friends experienced disappointments – lost jobs or broken relationships – she offered them a plate or two. She saved the shards for a craft project – lemons to lemonade.
Along with those rejections, Beck received positive comments. That encouragement helped her finish “Last Bus Out.” She got an agent, who submitted her manuscript on Dec. 3, 2008 – the date that came to be known as Black Wednesday in the publishing world. Major houses had mass layoffs, and no one was buying.
“Talk about luck,” Beck said. “It couldn’t get much worse. I got great feedback in the emails, but they all ended with ‘We’re not buying now.’”
Beck went the ebook route with “Last Bus Out” and eventually released it in paperback. But after that bad-luck experience, she was determined to bring good luck to “This Is Not a Drill.” So, she packed on the lucky sevens: She sent the manuscript to seven agents on 07/07/11.
Good luck, good work or a combination of the two did the trick. Within 24 hours, Beck had an agent, Jill Corcoran, who sent it out to publishers within three days. Within two weeks, they had multiple offers.
Good work gets my vote. Beck’s agent said she read the manuscript straight through on the night she received it. Beck gave me an advance reader copy, and I did the same.
“This Is Not a Drill” has a tight plot and plenty of suspense, just what I expected after the gripping true-life drama of “Last Bus Out.” But what delighted me most – again, no surprise – were Beck’s engaging, sympathetic characters.
I really liked getting to know protagonists Emery Austin and Jake Willoughby, high school seniors assigned to tutor the first-graders in French. It’s a fun assignment made stressful by their recent painful breakup. When faced with stress on a life-or-death level, they find courage and patience to meet the challenge.
Beck’s secondary characters often amused me – primarily the first-graders and especially the pompous, demanding Mason Mayfield III, who stomps his foot and tells the gunman he’s “a bad, bad man!”
Even that “bad man,” Iraq veteran Brian Stutts, comes across as a real person whose private pain and public service cannot be dismissed. Near the end of the ordeal, Emery overcomes her fear and Jake’s objections and talks to Stutts. She offers a sympathetic ear, and he shares a glimpse of the horrors of war. This doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does explain them.
Find out more about Beck’s work and her promotional schedule for “This Is Not a Drill” at www.beckmcdowell.com. For details about this and other Meet the Author programs at the library, visit http://hmcpl.org.