The Story of a Story

Nov 02, 2018 | Posted by Nathan King


My connection with the Lee family began with a phone call. One of IEW’s customer service agents spoke with a woman about her daughters who were interested in becoming accredited IEW instructors—at the ages of 15 and 16. As it turns out, the impressive nature of this family extends far beyond an unusual teenage penchant for teaching. Descendents of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, their mission is to reach out to Native American students in the Southwestern United States and help them learn to become effective written communicators. One of the sisters, Daniela, had written a pair of novels and had received several opportunities to speak on the subject. Her younger sister, Maria, edited her work while her older sister, Brisa, illustrated it. With a family production in full swing and a drive to better the lives and educations of others, I felt that I had to know more about the Lee family.

I contacted the Lees, and after connecting over Skype and exchanging some pleasantries, I launched into a discussion of Daniela’s first book by asking what inspired her idea.

She responded, “One night I had a dream. I saw a dog next to a shipwreck and the dog asked me to help rebuild it.” Daniela enjoyed the dream so much that she decided to keep working on the story. “These many stories were worked on over time, and I eventually wrote them down. Everyone liked it, I guess. I hadn't ever really thought about publishing. I was self-conscious about my writing.”

As it turns out, the Lees use IEW’s Fix It! Grammar program. Maria enjoys correcting things, so it was natural for her to use what she learned in Fix It! and the tips included in that product to work out the final editing of Daniela’s story. When I asked her about how she came to be the editor, she smiled.

“It was funny. I wasn't going to be the editor, but then Daniela said, ‘Hey Maria, do you want to read it?’ I went to her laptop, and I really liked the story.”

Daniela cut in, laughing, “And then she'd say, ‘Hey Dani, come here! Just so you know, I fixed a couple mistakes in there.’ I always saw her using a red pen on my work.”

Plotlines and Multiple Drafts
I decided to find out more about Dani’s novel. “How did you generate the storyline for your novel?” I asked.

“Making up plots takes longer than writing stories down on paper. You don't want it to go all over the place and not make sense. I'd been developing the storyline for several years. The second book is kind of interesting because when I started writing it, I showed it to Brisa, and she said, ‘You can do better.’ I only had one other idea, a super vague idea, and so I started writing. When I was done she said, ‘See, aren't you glad I told you that?’”

“So you wrote the book a second time?”

Daniela nodded. “I usually write two drafts. I write a whole book, and then I write it again. When I wrote the first book, it was accidentally deleted on my computer, but when I wrote it a second time, it came out so much better. The plot was a little different, but I'm so grateful the first one got deleted. For the second book, Brisa told me the first draft wasn't good enough. The third book was three-quarters done, and then I thought, you know, I don't want to keep this idea. I want to go another direction. The book always comes out better the second time because you've had time to think over the idea. I never plan on multiple drafts, but I always end up doing a second or maybe a third. I'm up to four drafts on one of my other books. I have a folder of scrap ideas on my computer that's so full of ideas I didn't use—all the drafts of books I didn't use and ideas that didn't work out.”

I asked Daniela about the nitty-gritty process of her novel-writing. “I always do a chapter outline. Once I have a story, I do each one and then I focus on each chapter. I find that helps a lot. Sometimes the story turns out different. Different things happen; it’s a really cool experience.”

I asked Daniela and her mother to tell me more about the actual publication of the novel. Daniela explained, “After my mom read it, she thought it was really good. She said, ‘We should get this published.’”

Her mother continued, “It's impossible to publish through an established publishing company. We looked into a bunch of them, and it cost so much money just to have them look at it. We'd heard of self-publishing, so we went to Createspace. That's how we published the book.”

The family was on a self-imposed deadline. Daniela was fourteen when her first book was published, fifteen with the second, and she is now sixteen as she works on a third book as well as a prequel to the whole series.

We started discussing the series’ plot again. Daniela confided, “After the first book was written, I had an idea more would happen, but I just had vague ideas. Was this a series? But on the online publishing system, Mom checked the box that it was a series. That haunted me, and so I wrote more in the series.”

What Happened Next – The School Opportunity
I decided to move on to Daniela’s experience as an author. “So I know that your writing gave you some opportunities to go speak to students at schools. How did that first school thing happen?”

Daniela related the experience to me. “We have an aunt who is a teacher at that school. She asked if she could read it out loud to her class. They were second graders. She was reading out loud to them, and the vice principal saw the kids really engaged, and she asked what book she was reading. Our aunt said that her niece wrote it, and the vice principal was impressed. They usually have a guest speaker come to the school for National Read Across America Day and Dr. Seuss' birthday, and I was put on as one of the potential speakers. I was excited! Then they called and said they'd chosen me to come to their school, and that was amazing! They also invited me to come back for my second book, and so I did. So I've been there for two years now.

“It was in a newspaper in Arizona, so some schools in White Mountain Apache reservation heard about it, and they invited me, too. We've been to three, twice in Texas in the same school, and then two separate schools in Arizona."

“The first time I came up, they gave me some pre-questions the night before, but everyone was totally unprepared. They literally handed me a microphone and a chair in front of 500 kids. They said that I’d talk about my book, and the kids would ask me some questions. That's what they said, and I was up there, but I didn't know I could even speak in public, because I get so nervous. Then I started speaking, and it all came so naturally, and my dad said, ‘It was like we threw you in a pool, and you won the Olympics.’"

I took a few minutes to focus in on Brisa, known affectionately as “Breeze” to her family, the illustrator of the series. I asked her to tell me about her illustrations.

“The first book doesn't have illustrations, just a cover,” she began. “The second does have some. We did an art contest at a school and the winners have theirs at the end of the book. The kids liked that quite a bit. She needed a cover for her book, and so we thought, ‘You know, that would look good as a front cover.’ After we went to a school, the kids wanted more pictures. That's when I did the inside and cover for the second book.”

Maria added, “Every single kid said, ‘You should have pictures!’”

I asked Brisa more about the inspiration for her work. “God Himself inspires me in everything. I would say that He gives me ideas on what to draw and create. Kids asked me things like what inspired me, and how long does it take to be a professional artist, and I'm like, What? I'm not an artist. It inspired me to create stuff when we went to the school. When I saw the cover plastered all over the school I was like, wow this made a big difference to them! And that really inspired me.”

I requested some of Brisa’s best tricks for inspiration when she needed to be creative. She responded quickly, “Listening to classical music with action in it.” Because working under a deadline can be stressful, the music helps to keep her mind focused on the task at hand.

What Makes a Story?
I decided to take us back to themes and morals in the book. “How do themes show up in your novel, and is there a process for that?” I asked.

“I like when there's a book or movie and there's something there for you to think about when it’s over,” Daniela mused. “I wanted that in my book, but it didn't come for awhile. I developed my main character's personality and then discovered what theme could be incorporated with that.”

I asked Daniela what the main themes of her first book were. She responded, “Strength and friendship and figuring out what your weakness is and how you can overcome it.” Daniela went on, “I guess it goes through all three. I didn't do this on purpose, but I tried to put a moral in all three [books]. The second one was about forgiveness and loving your enemies. The third book is,­ I guess, you can't judge people from where they come from. Every person is their own person and makes their own choices.”

I turned to Maria, “Maria, you’ve read the books. Do you agree? Were those the themes that came out to you?”

“Yeah,” she nodded.

Conspiratorially, Daniela shared about morals and themes in her next project. “The prequel theme will be similar to the first book, but I don't really know yet. I'm focused on the story right now, but I have a feeling something's going to show up in that. A lot of times things happen in my books that surprise me. It's like the characters come to life and I'm just watching them.”

“What drove you to write a prequel?” I asked.

Daniela thought for moment. “Because in the first book, I had a lot of questions, mostly from my sisters. Why is this happening? How did this person get there? I decided to write a book that answered those questions from the first book.”

I felt that there might be even more to how Daniela forms her themes, so I pressed her about her process. She explained, “I never decide on the moral or theme first, I always think of the story, and then I think—this could be in that story—like it's turning out to have that theme. I got inspiration from C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. Even though they weren't about God, they pointed you to God. I wanted that for my books.”

“It never says the name of Jesus, but you know that's what it’s about,” interjected Maria.

Daniela agreed. “When we go to public schools, we're almost like missionaries. I want them to see God because He’s the one who sent me the dream in the first place. In the second book, they quote the Bible in there.”

“If people ask me about main character's name (Joshua), I get to mention the Bible. I got the name from the Bible; I wanted him named after a strong character like that. It's a conversation opener.”

“Let’s go back for a minute, why did you focus on weakness?”

Daniela thought for a moment. “I guess because it isn't until you identify your own weakness that you can overcome it and become a stronger person. If you want to become stronger, face your fear and then you'll be able to overcome it.”

The Lees on a Mission
Maria and Daniela are interested reaching out to other students to help them become better writers, too. Daniela related the instigation of their mission. “The two schools on White Mountain Apache Reservation asked us if we would come back and teach some writing workshops, so we're taking a teacher's instruction course right now from IEW [Teaching Writing: Structure and Style].

“We want to go teach to kids on the reservation. We want them to have some of the same experiences that we had as we went through our writing lessons that helped our writing. I remember the banned words, like said, that we shouldn't use. It makes [the writing] more powerful, more meaningful. It gives you a better picture of what's going on.”

IEW Experience
I asked how IEW had benefited the family.

“It's helped so much,” replied Daniela eagerly. “I'm always thinking of banned words, who/which clauses, the outlines, the dress-ups. I'm always thinking of those things when I'm writing. Structural models—I'm always thinking about those. It helps my writing to come out better.”

Barnes & Noble had always been Daniela’s favorite store when she was little. “It was my dream to be published there,” she smiled. But she had also long been a fan of Andrew Pudewa. Daniela told me an anecdote of her first IEW video class. “We were doing the Student Writing Intensive for school. We were watching the videos, and I went to mom and asked her, ‘What can I do to be like him?’” She was pointing to Andrew on the television screen.

“Do you want to be an English teacher or professor?” her perplexed mother asked.

“No, him!” She wanted to be just like Mr. Pudewa!

“I wanted to teach writing, and now I'm taking a class to be like him,” she laughed.

“My writing career thing sort of began when I was three or four. I put pictures together in a book and my dad asked me where the words were. I put the pictures together to make a story, and then I asked them to write my story as I told it to them.”

Daniela took her picture stories to her mother, who then wrote the story for her.

“I wouldn't have known that I wanted to be a writer unless I'd made that story and mom took the time to write it down for me,” Daniela reflected. “Little kids won't know how to write things or spell, so it's great if their mom helps with that. Even to this day I have bad handwriting.” Daniela paused, then blurted, “But computers help with that!”

Daniela wasn’t the only one with early inklings of what would come. When Maria was little, people would ask her what she wanted to be, and she’d say, “I want to be an editor!” Needless to say, people weren’t expecting that sort of response! “It [editing] seems so fun because you get to correct people. Now I am an editor of my sister's books, and this course [IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style] will help me do that better.”

I left the interview feeling amazed—a writer, an illustrator, and an editor all in one family! Their novels, Son of the Sea Wolf, Vol. 1 and Son of the Sea Wolf: Fire vs. Water are available to purchase. Check them out. I’m betting these won’t be the last books they collaborate on, either!


Nathan King, the customer marketing manager for IEW, grew up as the son of a pastor in Wichita, Kansas. Following his graduation from Manhattan Christian College and Kansas State University with a degree in secondary education in history, he worked for thirteen years as a youth pastor in his hometown. Since he began working for IEW, Nathan has enjoyed both the marketing and customer service sides of his position. Nathan and his wife of thirteen years, Melissa, homeschool their four children, but it is his amazing wife that does the lion’s share of this vital mission!

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