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Teens get to practice art of writing; Jack O'Connell started young.

Byline: Sandy Meindersma

SHREWSBURY - Although they proclaimed themselves as "average," Mitch MacQueen and Aloysius Street proved to be a tough act to follow for local author and keynote speaker Jack O'Connell at the Worcester County Young Writers Conference.

As part of yesterday's conference at St. John's High School, Mitch, a junior at St. John's, and Aloysius - a junior at Abby Kelley Foster - participated in a nonfiction breakout session. With the assistance of New Hampshire author Rebecca Rule, the pair wrote an essay in which they first resist, and then revel in, being average.

The boys were among a dozen participants selected to share their day's writing with the entire conference prior to Mr. O'Connell's keynote address. For extra effect, Mitch read the bulk of the essay, with Aloysius voicing "average" each time the word was used in the essay.

A Worcester native, Mr. O'Connell is the author of five novels, including "The Resurrectionist," which was published in 2008.

Mr. O'Connell attributed some of his success to his family and the three-decker home he lived in growing up. "My family was large and bustling and full of voices. I would sit back and listen as all those voices competed - everybody had a story to tell."

He said his father had knocked down the walls in the house's top floor and installed bookshelves. "All of our family's books were there together - the Bobbsey Twins next to last year's best-seller, next to a chemistry book from the 1930s. Very quickly that room at the top of the house became my refuge."

It was his obsessive love for reading, Mr. O'Connell said, that gave birth to his love for writing. "I kept a notebook from the time I was 8, 9, 10 and 12, and I would fill them with the worst prose ever written. They were imitations of the authors I read, and that's how you get started.

"Over time, the notebooks were filled with character sketches, song lyrics, books to read and titles of the books I would one day write. Those notebooks became my incubator, where I was formed as a writer - that's where I found my voice."

Mr. O'Connell shared with the audience that it often takes many rejection letters before being published. "It's just paying your dues."

And while he now has five novels published and is working on a sixth, the first two novels he wrote were rejected and still have not been published.

It wasn't until his wife said to him, "Did I ever tell you about what happened to me at the post office one night?" that the premise for his first published novel, "Box Nine," was born.

"There was a dead bat in a box," he said. "And immediately that generated a thousand questions - why do you send a dead bat in the mail, where do you get a dead bat and who do you send a dead bat to?

"That night I went to bed, and then got up at 4 a.m. like I always did, and within nine months I had a novel, and I sent it to my agent."

And just about the time he thought he would have to give up his dream of being a writer, he got the call from the agent telling him that "Box Nine" had been accepted for publication.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Aliya Slayton of Gibbons Middle School in Westboro, under the guidance of James Beschta of Barre, writes from an initial opening line of a play.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/MARK C. IDE
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 7, 2010
Words:589
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