I good friend of mine works in a variety of capacities for a literary agent. One of the many hats she wears is that of a slush reader for the incoming queries. She shares inspirational (and warning) tidbits on Facebook from the slush pile without identifying the author that sent the query. Her post from today was about an eight-year-old girl who queried (with the help of her mother) this agent. This made me think back to when I was around that age and had started writing, and the journey I’ve been on since then.
I may have voluntarily (meaning not a class assignment) written a piece of fiction before this age, but this is my first memory of doing so. I hand wrote somewhere around ten pages (front and back) in my barely legible scrawl (and my handwriting has not improved much over the years). I remember it being fantasy. I remember attempting to emulate Terry Brooks (one of my literary heroes). It was not fan-fic, but definitely in Brooks’s style.
Incredibly proud of what I had accomplished, I gave it to my fifth grade English teacher to see what she thought of it. I wanted her to pat me on the head and tell me what a wonderful job I’d done. I wanted glowing praise. I wanted affirmation.
Instead, she graded it like it was a piece of tardy homework.
I’m pretty sure she used more red ink on the pages than I had pencil marks. Every spelling mistake was circled. Every sentence (run-on, fragment, or otherwise) was mangled with cryptic remarks and lines and circles and arrows.
It’s the kind of thing you’d give to an adult critique partner in your critique group.
It wasn’t supposed to be the kind of thing given to a child with a fragile ego.
Without explanation or verbal review, she just dropped the bleeding pages on my desk as she walked by a few days later.
I read everything she’d written and understood very, very little of it. I never went back to her for an explanation of the things my childish ignorance couldn’t grasp. What I did understand was that I would never make it as a writer. I’d never be the next Terry Brooks. I’d never write anything worthy of human eyes again.
After crying myself to sleep for nearly a week, I made myself quit writing.
Five years passed, and I broadened my reading pleasures. I was solidly in the fantasy genre, but I snagged the occasional science fiction book as well. I threw in a few westerns for the fun of it, and absorbed every non-fiction book about history I could get my grubby little hands on.
At this time, my grandparents paid for my book consumption habit by gladly paying for anything I wanted to order via my Science Fiction Book Club membership. There were loads of omnibus editions of trilogies available, and I chewed threw them with a voracious appetite.
One of the things I read was The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson. It gripped me. It wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t get the “everything isn’t happy and shiny and glorious” taste out of my brain. I suppose this has, to this day, shaped my writing voice to some extent.
I pulled out a typewriter (see note above about the horrible handwriting), and started banging away on a story in the style of Donaldson. Again, not fan-fic, but in the same vein. Mine was about a fellow with leukemia that went into remission when he slept and dreamed about another world of magic and fanciful powers. It was dark and ugly, and I loved every word of it.
After writing a chapter or so, I handed the sheets of paper to my hero. My grandfather. My Papa. I wanted to know his opinion, and I knew he’d give me solid advice with a loving touch only he possessed.
After reading my words, he said, “This is fine, but you need to focus on something that will pay the bills.”
Like anything your hero says, you take it to heart. Fully. Completely.
I didn’t know of a way to make money via my words. I did know that software engineers (I’d been programming eight years by this time) made money. In order to make my way in the world as a software engineer (which I succeeded at), I gave up writing. I didn’t fully grasp the fact that a person could be proficient in, or even excel in, multiple things. I figured it was a binary decision, and I had to give up one thing to do another.
Again, I made myself quit writing.
A few years passed, and the writing bug wouldn’t leave me alone. I picked up the pen and paper (the typewriter broke long ago, and affordable laptops weren’t quite a thing yet) and hauled my writing implements to all-night diners to scribble my words. At this time in my life, I was only responsible for myself. No one else depended on me, so my time was my own. I’d nurse my pot (or two) of coffee and munch on some french fries into the wee hours of the morning while writing stories.
I didn’t have plot, structure, character arcs, storylines, or anything else you’d commonly find in a well-crafted story. These were basically characters going through the motions of life and overcoming the nasty things I threw at them. This was the best I could do at the time, so it’s what I did.
The problem I had was this: no support group.
I didn’t have anyone to talk with, anyone to encourage me, anyone to help me grow as a writer. This was before the Internet (as we know it now) really took off, so online communities didn’t exist. I didn’t have any local resources (that I knew of) to just hang out and talk-the-talk with them. There was no one around to encourage me to walk-the-walk.
Remembering my fifth grader teacher’s critique (and I use that word loosely here) and my grandfather’s advice, I tossed aside the writing. I moved on with my life. I threw myself head first into improving my software engineering and computing skills because I knew I would be good at it.
Because no one was around to support me when I needed it most, I made myself quit writing.
Lightning struck in 2006. I was eating at a local (Colorado Springs, CO) pizza joint called Poor Richard’s Pizza. Locals will recognize what I’m describing…. Poor Richard’s has a giant corkboard wall where people can post ads for yoga classes, upcoming band appearances, local businesses, suicide prevention hotlines, veteran assistance groups, some stuff for sale, lost animals, found animals, and so on. That corkboard is a great reflection of the society and culture of Colorado Springs.
When I eat at Poor Richard’s alone, I always try to sit along the wall where the corkboard is at, so I have something to read while I wait for the pizza.
This one day, there was a bright, yellow, oversized bookmark that would not be ignored. The logo at the top said, “Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group.” Somewhere under it were the bold letters, “Visitors Welcome” and below that was the rest of their schedule for the year.
This catapulted me back into the writing world. I found a support group to encourage me, improve me, educate me, and drive me forward in my writing.
Through the CSFWG, I discovered Pikes Peak Writers. Through both of those organizations I’ve made countless friends, endless networking opportunities, and a world of literary wealth warming my heart.
Yeah. I’ve had my downs to go with the ups, but since that day in 2006, I made a promise to myself: