Yesterday, my good friend and blogger Kristin McFarland had a post that made me sit and ponder for a while. She talked about her defining moments as a writer, from childhood through now. Some of you may know that Kristin and I are slogging through what I call the Query Trenches together. We’ve been lock-step this whole way, from first full requests to rejections. We’ve even had manuscripts in the hands of the same agents. Sometimes we’ve gotten different results.
But the biggest thing that has been meaningful about having Kristin around is that we’ve experienced the ups and downs together. We’ve had weeks where we were both walking on sunshine and lollipops — and weeks where we feel like people are doing nothing but chucking mustard gas at us and waiting for our skin to fall off.
We’ve gone from thinking, “You know, five years from now we’ll probably be sitting on a panel together telling new writers about this and celebrating new contracts” to “WE ARE NEVER GETTING AGENTS THEY ALL HATE US LET US GET DRUNK AND OGLE DAMON SALVATORE’S ABS.”
Her post was about how she got here, and it made me think about how I did. How two women from different states ended up starting the same stage of a writer’s path together.
Mine started with this:
1. I learned to read at age 4. I loved stories. I would tell them with my Bernstein Bear dolls and the Legos I’d leave strewn helpfully about the floor so my mum could step on them. And as soon as I could hold a pen, I started writing stuff down. Usually in Mum’s day planners, which weren’t cheap and therefore she concluded weren’t the best venue for my scrawling (which may or may not have made sense. But I started telling stories any way I could, through comics and paper, as cave art on the walls of my walk-in closet in the middle of the night.
2. In fifth grade, I set out to write a novel. I got a mechanical pencil and a sheath of college-ruled paper and got started. It was an overblown space melodrama starring all of my friends at the time . I changed exactly one name: mine. I’d heard somewhere that if you traveled fast enough, time would slow down. That astronauts could conceivably leave Earth and visit other worlds only to come back and find everyone they love dead of old age.
My story was based on that being a surprise, and I never got that far. Somewhere around my hand-written page 34, I decided I didn’t know enough about quantum mechanics to write a convincing sci-fi and put it away.
3. In eighth grade, I had a teacher whose name was, rather fittingly, Pamela Wright. I wrote a story about falling off my bike at age six, described the blood that spurted from my head wound, needing stitches, and being more scared about getting my clothes dirty and getting in trouble than anything else. I still remember a white-shirted neighbour hauling me out of the muddy ditch and cradling me against his chest, hurrying up the stairs to our apartment.
Ms. Wright told me I was a great writer. For a kid who wasn’t popular or good at much besides getting As in school, having A Talent For Something changed the way I looked at my life and my potential.
4. High school rolled around, and with it, several more moves. My family landed in Corvallis, a tiny town known only for its proximity to a slightly-less-tiny town of Hamilton, but I landed in Darby for my final year and a half and refused to budge. It was there I started writing my next novel — an epic fantasy influenced by my infatuation with my Celtic heritage and a deep, abiding love for David Eddings and Robert Jordan.
My best friend Catie was also writing a novel. Hers was 500-some-odd pages already, and she was writing and editing like a fiend. We were both way ahead of the graduation schedule and had to fill in the hours of school with something, so our English teacher, Nancy Rokusek, decided to offer us a creative writing independent study. We had to turn in 10-20 new pages of story a week or supplement it with character descriptions or the maps you see above. I got actually past the first plot point of this novel. I’d planned it to be a trilogy. Who knows? Looking at that map makes my heart go warm and fluffy. Maybe I’ll go back to it someday.
4a. Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, I told a whole other story. I was in a biology class taught by a phenomenal teacher called Craig Kuchel who gave us these packets to use as workbooks each quarter. They were only printed on one side, and I was always done early. So naturally, I spent the rest of my time drawing stick figure Johnny Castaway (anyone remember that screen saver?) comics on the backs of the sheets. Mr. Kuchel greeted these with a sense of joy, tempered by the resignation that it would take him four times as long to grade my papers.
Och, I found a video! You’re welcome.
5. The College Years. I started university as a biology major, thanks mostly to Craig Kuchel drilling a fascination for DNA and molecular biology into my noggin. Unfortunately, the biology programme at my university was lacking in many things, a lively professor being one of them. I got there and discovered I already knew everything they taught in Bio 101, so I slept through it. Literally. It was really rude of me.
Meanwhile in my required history class, Bill Watson was dancing about the room and miming out hieroglyphics every time he said the word, and I got to enjoy writing his weekly ten page papers. I fell in love with history and changed majors. The cynic in me says that’s probably why I am still poor. I am pretty sure they’re hiring more scientists than historians right about now. ANYWAY.
I wrote a couple little snippets of novels that never quite clicked for me. Then, sometime in 2005, I started hearing voices. One voice, to be exact. She had a presence like a cool wind and a deep sadness. But a fierce, fierce love. And I knew I’d found the story I had to tell. So I started telling her story, page by page, between papers and preparations to go to Poland. About fifty pages in, I found that her story wasn’t the beginning. There was another character about to come on the scene, and she was the real beginning. Back I went. And in the autumn of 2008, I finished my first completed novel.
Three years later (last autumn) I finally finished telling the story of the girl with the cool wind voice. But her story wasn’t the end. There was a flame-haired, four-hundred-year-old vampire who needed attention. I got halfway through her story and found out I probably couldn’t publish them after hearing from several agents at the Writer’s Digest Conference that vampires were an almost impossible sell. And, you know, finding out that as my first book ever, the writing and structure needed work. I could see the quality shifting as I wrote the third book in that trilogy, and I knew it didn’t match the beginning.
6. Sometime in May, I got hit upside the head with a 2×4 by a female superhero called Gwenllian Maule. She was sitting in Edinburgh, listening to her crappy boyfriend go on about the pointlessness of Scottish independence, and she wished her boss’s head would explode. She was insecure, doormat-y, and didn’t have superpowers. Yet. And she hijacked my life for six weeks, from mid-May until the end of June.
After two months of furious edits, and some serious LURVE and gushing from my amazing beta readers, I sent my first (crappy) query letters on 5 September. A week later, I revised my query and sent out a bunch more. 10 hours later I got my first request. Four days after that, I got a requery request from an agent who saw a glimmer of something in my query but not enough. I revised my query in an hour and sent it back. She requested the full. Two days later, the first request upgraded to a full, which turned into a revise and resubmit.
So here I am, writing verbose blog posts and plowing through NaNoWriMo at the speed of a moderately fast person. I’m finally getting to tell another story that’s been poking at me for four years. And there are heaps more stories in there, waiting to come out.
That’s what it all boils down to — is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet. But that time is coming. My time is coming. Kristin’s time is coming. Right now we’re just crossing off the days and waiting until our stories are in front of the right eyeballs. And they will be.
So I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one’s flashing a peace sign.
Whatever your career, what were your defining moments? What got you where you are? Did you take the scenic route like I did?
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