July 17, 2013

The turning point in my life as a writer...

I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember, long before I knew how to read or write. My parents encouraged my creativity with story prompts such as, “What happened?” and “What on earth were you thinking?”

My earliest stories opened in medias res and featured flamboyant villains, pirates, evil queens and masked men with guns and knives. I, of course, was always the lone protagonist. And if my parents had trouble suspending disbelief, I’d just throw in an act of God.

I eventually learned the difference between flat out lying and embellishing a story. I also learned that sheets make lousy parachutes. Training wheels are on bicycles for a reason. Go carts need brakes. And you should never, ever roll anyone down a steep hill in an old tire without first clearing away large rocks.

One of the first turning points in my storytelling career occurred when I discovered I could command the rapt attention of my pre-teen peers with extremely improbable, but highly romantic, stories. All I had to do was frame the story inside the comment, “I had a dream about you and…(whatever celebrity they were currently crushing on)."

The most important lesson I learned during those formative years was that you can’t end an unresolved story with, “And then I woke up.” No one likes a cliffhanger.

I first considered writing as an actual career in high school when a few of my angst-riddled short stories and poems were published in an anthology. What a rush! I knew then I wanted to write a real book. But I didn’t know how.

It was overwhelming. I gave up. Years passed. I tried several different careers, but never lost the desire to write a full-length novel. 

One day, I stumbled across a website hosting fan fiction and decided to give that a try. It was much easier to continue someone else's story using their characters and their world, sort of like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. (Those early childhood lessons were not forgotten.)

I decided to write a short little 10,000 word story, as a test, to see if I could do it. I never meant to spend the better part of a year writing a 200,000 word opus.

But reviews are addicting. I checked the website obsessively after posting a new chapter. My husband encouraged me to stop playing around with fan fiction and write something I could sell. My story had over 2,000 reviews (most of them positive) but it was free and it was riding on the back of someone else’s very popular series. I didn't think anyone would pay to read my stories. But the seed was planted.

A few characters started to take shape. Jonathan, Franklin, River and Eli occupied my mind for hours. But it wasn’t until my fan fiction won a couple of "readers' choice" awards for "most original plot" and "best author" that I started to think that, yeah, maybe I could do this. That was probably the single most important turning point of my career.

I studied every “how to write” book I could get my hands on. I bought a laptop and converted the guest room into an office. And then I sat my butt down and wrote for eight to ten hours a day. I also conquered my fear and submitted a writing sample to Orson Scott Card’s juried workshop.

Jonathan and River’s story was ninety percent done when I got the news that I was one of fourteen people that had been accepted into the exclusive “bootcamp” portion of the workshop. I think that’s the first time I felt like a “real writer.”

My excitement waned a bit when Mr. Card read my writing sample out loud to an assembly of about one hundred people then ripped it to shreds. I thought I would die from humiliation. I didn’t. I didn’t run away or crawl under my chair or even cry… but I sure wanted to.

The other "boot camp winners" critiques were just as harsh as mine, so I felt a lot better by the end of the day. Sad, but true. Misery really does love company.

As part of the workshop, we had twenty-four hours to write a short story that the entire group would critique. When it was my turn, I started hyperventilating. The other writers praised my work, but my anxiety only escalated. I nearly passed out from the stress when Mr. Card held up my simple little story about a girl with a power name and a chastity curse that zapped any boy that touched her.

He tapped the front page with his index finger and said, “This story needs to be expanded into a young adult novel. Teenage girls will love it and make their boyfriends read it.” He was right. Enchantment’s been downloaded nearly 200,000 times.

He said lots of other things too, but that’s all I remember about that major turning point. I was on fire. I went home, put River and Jonathan on hold, and wrote Josh and Channie’s story. I titled it, in part, as a tribute to Orson Scott Card.

If you type “Enchantment” in Amazon’s search window, his novel is usually right next to mine. I smile every time I see it. 

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