I just published my first novel, but it all started with a poem.
I was in high school and my brother was leaving for college. I wrote him a poem, in pencil, on lined yellow ledger paper. He broke my heart by leaving me, but I knew that's how it had to be. We couldn't stay kids forever. We had to grow up. Writing to ease a broken heart seemed like a good thing to do at the time, and I took solace in the words.
Over the years, my writing has come from many places: joy, despair, confusion, introspection. I've written hundreds of poems, thousands of personal journal entries, 20 or so short stories, and several unfinished novels. It had always been about me and what was going on in my head at the time.
In 2006, I joined a local writer's group here in Cincinnati. We'd gather once a month, on Saturday afternoons at an English pub across the river in Kentucky. I drank Blue Moons, and they drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. We would share and peer review each other's works. My writing was amateurish at best, compared to the rest of the group. They talked about going on writing retreats and sharing a writing space downtown. I had babies at home and we were struggling financially. There was no way I could join in, even though it sounded amazing. They were professionals and I was just a hack pretending to know what I was doing. Eventually the group broke up and I left my writing career behind.
I guess when something's in your blood, it never really goes away. Five years later, my son was in kindergarten. It was Christmas, and he went shopping with his own money at Candy Cane Lane at the elementary school. He bought me a Cincinnati Bengals pencil. When I opened the gift, he said, "It's a pencil, Mommy. Now you can be a writer."
I don't think he really understood the impact that pencil and those words would have on me.
My writing bug resurfaced, and I began submitting my poetry and short stories to various contests around. I bought the Writer's Market and the Poet's Market (resources for connecting with publishers and agents). I took a few writing classes in hopes of upping my game. Writing was not a part of my formal education and I felt my skills were subpar. I bought books and books and books on writing. I bought software that would help you organize your thoughts into a coherent novel. And I read like crazy.
I would get an idea for a novel, I would be thoroughly excited about it, I would get about 25 pages in, and the magic would dissipate. I'd lose interest once I figured out how the rest of the story should go. Filling in the blanks became tedious and uninspiring.
I competed in NaNoWriMo a few times, but never finished the 50,000 words. I was in a writing rut that went on for years. Working on projects that went nowhere. Cranking out crap poetry and short stories just so I could feel like I finished something.
The expert writers tell you that you have to make yourself write something every day, and that will make you better. You just need more practice. You just need to make it a habit; part of your routine. You need to make it a priority.
I followed that advice. I made myself write for a few minutes every day and it became a chore. It was no longer something I looked forward to, but something I just did for the sake of doing. I felt like I wasn't getting any better, just getting faster at writing the same old crap. It was pretty disheartening.
Then last summer, I stumbled upon a Writer's conference in Lexington called the Books-In-Progress Conference. Lexington is an easy drive from Cincinnati, and the schedule looked pretty interesting. I'd never been to a writer's conference, so I decided to go.
It's been a long time since I felt like a newb at a conference. It was fantastic. The keynote speaker was a poet named Nikky Finney. She was amazing. I stood in line afterward to have a few words with her. She asked what kinds of things I wrote.
"Well, I wrote some tech books, but I don't count those. None of my fiction has been published. Nobody's paying me to write. I'm not a real writer," I said.
"Do you write words?" she said.
I laughed and said I'd been writing words for 25 years.
She took my hand and said , "Then you're a writer, darlin'. You don't need anyone's permission to call yourself that."
That was a revelation.
She was right, of course. I didn't need a paycheck or permission and neither do you. If you write words, then that by definition makes you a writer.
With this newfound confidence, I embraced a little story seed that was stashed away in my mind, and I let it out on paper. I no longer cared about "being a great writer." All I cared about was telling the story as it was in my mind.
The words flowed like they never had before. Writing was no longer about fixing my innards or trying to prove myself to the rest of the world. It sounds silly, but the writing became more about the experience than the story itself. I had a blast.
I didn't have to "make" myself write every day. I wrote every day because I wanted to. I was excited to. It was a treat. The story unfolded before my eyes, and I was simply the messenger.
I then decided I would create my own cover. I had gotten recommendations for professional designers from some writer friends, but selfishly, I wanted to try it myself. I decided I wanted to experience every piece of this process. I edited it myself and formatted it myself. I did the research and decided to publish it myself. I didn't need anyone's permission or approval. And I loved every minute of it.
I no longer worry about being judged. That was a huge obstacle for me. Writing is a very personal thing, and allowing others to read what you've written puts you in a pretty vulnerable spot. My writing might still be crap, but none of that matters. The experience was worth it. And if someone wants to take time out of their busy lives to read it, then that's pretty awesome. Even if they hated it.
I've already started the next novel, and I know what will happen in the next one after that. I also have a nugget of inspiration for the next whole series of books. I don't plan on quitting my day job, but it's all very exciting to me, and I can't wait to see how these things unfold.
My novel's called The Storytellers, and it's available on Kindle. Print version will be available soon.