Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting started: My Foundations

So you want to follow in my footsteps and become a full-time writer.  You're wondering, how did I become a good writer?  What makes me think I can just jump into writing and pull off a full-length novel?  That takes a lot of confidence in my ability as a writer.  So what makes me think I'm good enough?

Talent? Or education?

Can anyone pick up a pen and write?  Yes, and no.  I won't claim that I was always a great writer.  In fact, I actually have learning disability in written English, diagnosed in the first grade.  I didn't find out about it until I was in late high school, but it's because of that disability that I am a good writer, above and beyond most of my peers (it's true, as humble as it isn't.)  My mother should be given credit - having been a teacher herself, she knew what to look for, and furthermore, she advocated to make sure I was tested and then fully supported throughout my earliest education.  Thus, I (and all my classmates, too!) received extra instruction on grammar and mechanics during an educational time period when the fad was to ignore the mechanics and expect kids to develop them on their own. 

I was slow to learn to read.  Most of my friends were bookaholics much earlier than I was, and to tell the truth, for a long time I read at or below grade level.  At an age that most of the friends I would meet in years to come were reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I was reading Barbie books, The Boxcar Children,  and Animorphs.  But once I started reading, I couldn't stop - reading is in the family, and what's more, it's just fun.  So although I started behind most of my peers, I caught up.  And I also began applying what I was reading to what I was writing.  By the time I hit fourth grade, I was in the top of my class in writing, especially in descriptive writing.  Reading is one of the best ways to become a good writer, because it lets you learn what you like and don't like in other people's writing.  Plus, I had developed an exceptional vocabulary for my age (mostly written - I still occasionally mispronounce words learned from books!)  Most importantly, I liked to write, so I got a lot of practice, between me and my friends' early attempts to write our own stories. This led me to be placed in advanced English classes, and having great English teachers in later years kept me challenged and inspired.  Was I the best?  By no means!  But even in elementary school, by the end I was good. 

The Foundations of Choice: Write what you know

"Write what you know."  This doesn't mean, of course, that I've ever had a perfect romance myself, or that I've been catapulted through the Bronze Age and cast spells to repel invading Mycenaeans.  It does, however, mean that I've been reading sci-fi and fantasy since I graduated past Barbie novels and Babysitter's Club.  I started my sci-fi obsession with Star Wars, way back in my tween years.  And, as some of you know, there's a rather large argument that Star Wars should actually be considered a third genre: Science Fantasy.  Not surprising my next steps were into the fantasy world with Tamora Pierce, and fantasy-like sci-fi with Anne McCaffery.  Pretty much everything I read in my developmental stages were in those genres, with occasionally a little hard sci-fi thrown in. 

Behind the Scenes: The training wheels

During middle school, my fellow writer friends and I began a little writing circle, where we began writing "books" (trust me, the quotation marks are justified, at least in my case!) and sharing them with each other.  I began two stories: One, I decided I wasn't a good enough writer yet to do the story justice as I wanted to see it done.  The other, I wrote over three hundred pages (by hand!), during which no plot ever came to the surface, the characters remained cheap knock-offs of a popular TV show, the romance was trite and overly mushy, and my writing became virtually illegible.  I also gained a deep-seated addiction to writing, one which settled into my bones and never left, and gained a little notoriety amongst my friends for having 300 pages of handwritten story.  I learned to give my characters distinct voices, and discovered the power of first-person narrative (the first fifty pages ended up with a lot of crossed-out "she"s!)  I've since lost the journals in which this novel was written and never finished, but the memories and lessons are well ingrained in my psyche.

I also go into anime during my middle and high school years.  My first attempts at "published" writing were "fanfictions," or stories written in the settings of another writer's work and put online with disclaimers admitting that you owned nothing of the characters or world, and were neither gaining nor expecting income from the stories.  I taught myself very basic HTML and set up a website posting them online (it was on Geocities.  I'm afraid it was all lost when Geocities shut down.)  They weren't bad, and I finished a novel-length fanfic - although the first three chapters were written by someone else.  I began writing that one back in the ninth grade, and finished it... two years later?  Three?  A long time ago.  I can't remember exactly, I'm afraid!  But by then, I actually had enough skill as a writer to compose a storyline and keep to it, and keep my characters in distinct personalities - the joy of writing a fanfic is that your world is already set, and your characters already have defined personalities, so it's like training wheels for an author learning to keep things consistent ("In character," in the terminology of the fanfiction world!)

Behind the scenes: My first original works worth mentioning

In high school, I did more than write fanfics and continue a handwritten atrocity; I also began writing shorts and tidbits that were actually good.  Most of my closest friends were also writers, and we geeked out together constantly.  In my junior year, three of us formed the "Lunchroom Stories," where we'd get together every Friday, choose a random topic, and present something written based off of last week's topic.  We also compared our individual projects and, of course, just chewed the fat together.  My sophomore, junior, and senior English teachers were beyond comparison - they were tough, they were strict, and they taught me more about writing than I could ever have imagined possible.  Kudos to them - I have to say they are a very large part of why I'm now a writer.  My junior year English teacher also imparted on me this:  "KISS: Keep it short and simple."  That's stuck with me through the years, and become an important element of my own writing - I try to avoid unnecessary "dross."  Interestingly enough, my sophomore year World History teacher also played a big part of my writing education: he required essays, a lot of them, and long.  He taught us to be concise and focused, and just as importantly, taught us how to write long essays on a non-English subject.  You'd be surprised how much that helped in college, when writing essays came in every subject, not just English!  In my senior year, I joined the school Literary Magazine and Newspaper.  Writing was a part of my life, and I kept to it. 

College and After: the final steps

In college, most of my writing was essay- or school- focused.  Not surprising! My first years, I took a lot of interdisciplinary courses, so almost every subject included several 10+ page essays per semester.  I found I liked essay-writing, and for most of those interdisciplinary courses, we could pick truly intersting topics!  But I also occasionally made time for writing on the side, although nothing I ever felt like publishing.  I took up playing Dungeons and Dragons, and most of my free-time writing went into developing characters and worlds of my own.  I also free-form roleplayed with some of my friends, coming up with worlds and characters, but I never turned any of the roleplaying into full-length stories (despite a few plans to do so.)  After college, I began a new job and quickly discovered it wasn't right for me.  I was pretty miserable, and I returned to reading as an escapism.  Oddly enough, this was the first time I'd ever willingly cracked a romance novel.  I found quickly that I had little interest in historical or contemporary romance, but paranormal romance caught and held me (big surprise, right?).  I read a lot of those books, and even dragged a good friend into reading them with me so I could have someone to discuss them with. 

I kept reading romance the following year, in a new job, and then began writing short projects on the side, too.  I wrote several novel-length fanfictions on romance stories (and being as they're fanfictions, I have no intention of revealing them - I will not capitalize on them in any way, because the worlds and ideas are not my own.)  When I finally decided to leave my job as a florist, I knew writing would take a lot of time and energy, especially for the amount I planned to do.  So I took an old romance story idea (begun, of course, during my romance binge of the previous year) and began writing on it while working.  I wrote every day, large amounts, and got myself back into shape as an endurance writer.  Then I quit my job in actuality, and began my journey as a novelist.

So what about the rest of us?

You don't have that kind of background in writing?  Don't worry.  What gives me confidence in writing is the fact that I know I've matured into a clean, concise writer, with the knowledge of constructing a storyline from scratch and keeping more or less to it.  My grammar is excellent, and I happily deviate from it with full knowledge of why what I'm doing is wrong.  My first drafts are often as good as other writers' second-to-final drafts (this post, for example, was written straight and barely edited.)  But you know what?  I'm not the best writer I know.  Many of those second-to-final drafts turn into final drafts that blow mine out of the water!  And those writers who are better than me, they can't all claim the same creditials that I have.  They've got their own.

You can't be a writer if you can't write.  So, make sure you know how to be grammatical, how to plan, and how to edit.  However, you don't have to be perfect your first time through!  If you're not a clean writer, then fix it in editing.  Don't expect to become a full-time writer if you can only write a page a day, but remember: writing is like a sport.  You can train yourself to be able to write more!  Just keep at it!  Set goals and reach them. 

I guess that's all my advice right now (the fact that I have to go has a lot to do with this...), but that's where I come from.  Every writer comes from somewhere different, so don't let my accreditations alarm you.  After all, I'm not even an English major!  And I've taken almost no creative writing courses in my life.  You'll have your own strengths and weaknesses, too.  It's up to you to decide when and if you're ready.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My first steps

I'm not afraid to admit that I didn't think this out.  I mean, I certainly thought about it, a lot, and I even prepared financially for it.  But the fact is, I walked into full-time writing with little more planning than a small nest egg, a little practice, and fingers that wouldn't stop itching.

I just finished my first novel, Poseidon's Daughter, and am currently in the phase of trying to get it published.  If you're tagging along, you're probably curious how I got this far, and whether or not I'll make it any further. I can answer the first right here and now - in fact, I will!  But the latter is something you'll just have to wait to discover, and trust me, I'm just as impatient as you are.

How did I get this far?

I've always loved to write.  It's something of an addiction.  For me, writing involves sci-fi, fantasy, or paranormal romance (i.e., sci-fi or fantasy with a little romance added in!)  Back in early November, I came to the realization that my current job wasn't netting me any profits.  In fact, I was losing approximately $300 a year, after all my bills and minor expenses.  I'm the sort of girl who likes to budget.  And I'm also the sort of girl who isn't okay with working more than full time (44 hours a week, to be exact), only to lose money.  My job wasn't bad; I was the manager of the floral department at a grocery store, and I enjoyed the 'working with flowers' part of it.  I got along well with my coworkers, and at least two of my many bosses clearly valued the work I was doing.

But, at the end of the day, "not bad" wasn't enough of a reason to stick around in a job that was losing me money.  You see, I'm something of a miser.  I LIKE to save money.  I don't indulge in partying, or designer clothes, or fancy haircuts, or expensive makeup.  I rarely go to movies, and I don't eat out very often.  So, if living on a bare-bones budget still landed me on the negative side of debt, that meant I wasn't going to be happy.  Before I'd moved into my current apartment, I'd managed to save up about 5 months worth of rent and bills.  I decided to stick with my job through Christmas (I wasn't going to leave my managers hanging right before the holidays!), and then take time off to write my first publishable novel.

We all know November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month,) and although I had a busy schedule for November, I decided I'd use my pre-freedom time to train for writing full-time.  I took an old story of about 22K words, and told myself I had until New Years' to finish it.  You see, I consider full-time writing to be something of a marathon sport.  So, just as if I were training to run a marathon, I began training to write a marathon. I wrote a little every day, more on my days off, even to the neglect of cleaning (much to my poor roommate's chagrin - she's a very patient woman, thank goodness!)  By New Years', I was just putting the final edits on my story, which had reached 103,000 words, and I finally felt ready to begin planning something for publishing.  (No, you can't read the "training wheels" story, and yes, that's my final answer.)

So I spent the first week of January, now jobless, putting together a plotline, writing character summaries of my main characters, and pretty much hashing out the world.  I'd decided back in November that my first novels would be Romance, because in fiction the most frequently books sold each year are romance - that means marketability.  Furthermore, most romance novels are less than 100K words; fantasy can be up to three times that, and sci-fi partway between.  Novel writing isn't lucrative.  In order to make a living, I need to publish several books each year.  The best way to do this is to choose a word count I can complete in a minimal amount of time - can you imagine writing 300,000 words in two months?  I can't!  I also decided that I would make my first set a series, because if a reader likes your first, they're more likely to buy the sequel.  So I read through some of my favorite publishers, and decided that if I was going to write serial fantasy romance, I should aim for a publisher who already publishes several fantasy romances.  I didn't have a clue as to how to appeal to them, but I was more worried about getting written first.

I began writing in early January (January 7,2011, to be exact).  I wrote no less than 3000 words a day, although I did allow myself to takes a day or two off each week for chores and friends.  I rarely wrote more than 3500, despite my original intentions; since I was basing my story off an actual historical time period (the late Bronze Age), I had to do a lot of research.  ("Wait, books haven't been invented yet!  Argh!  Guess I have to go back and change all references of books to scrolls.")  I made sure I had a plan for the overall series already plotted out - I dislike it when authors suddenly toss an entirely new set of rules into a series partway through.  By having an idea of what the later books in the series will be, I was able to include scenes and characters that have little use to the current storyline, but will be essential in later books in the series.  A sense of continuity in a series is very important to me; episodic books are all right, but I'd rather feel like the books are all connected.  Since I'm writing the novels, that means they have to appeal to me.

In my past writing ventures, I've thrown out continuous chapters to several of my friends for revisions and ideas.  That was a mistake, I've since learned, because nobody has time to continuously reread your works!  In this novel, I sent out a section to one person, one time, for feedback before the story was done.  By the end of the next day, I'd figured out what was bothering me and revised it myself, so much so that it was barely even the same story that I'd sent off.  I stopped bothering on getting mid-work revisions and focused on finishing the novel.

I finished the last scene of the rough draft on Valentine's day, just over a month from when I began writing, reaching 106,000 words.  I printed off the rough draft, bought stamps and envelopes, and mailed myself a copy for copyright purposes.  From there, I spent the next week thoroughly scouring the novel for grammar mistakes, incontinuities, and unecessary sections, and added several more scenes I felt were necessary.  Once I got it to where I felt it was decent, I sent to several friends for their opinions.  They're still reviewing it, but I'm confident enough in the story to begin sending out query letters.

What's a query letter?  Well, some time in mid-January I decided it would be important to find out what my target publisher requires for publishing submissions.  It turns out that they require you to have a literary agent.  That means I had to research how to get a literary agent.  I've been bad: I haven't ever gone to writers' workshops, and I don't have a membership to Romance Writers of America, and I don't really have a huge internet presence.  That means nobody knows who I am.  If I want an agent, I have to send them an "unsolicited request."  Literary agents get thousands of these a month, sometimes even in a day!  They're not going to read that many manuscripts.  Instead, they ask that you send them query letters, which have a brief description of the story (like you'd find on the back of a book), a word count, why you chose that agent in particular, and a little about yourself, including previous publications.  I polished up my query letter and have sent out a personalized copy to about five literary agents so far.  I chose those agents based on their interests: what have they worked with in the past?  If they do romance, do they also do science fiction and fantasy?  Is it only urban fantasy, or do they work with historical fantasy, too?  My first day's research uncovered five good literary agent fits, all of whom indicated that they were still building their client list.


That was yesterday.  Today I may not get much more done, as I have a part-time job of tutoring that will take up most of the afternoon, and I have to plan lessons for two students.  I don't expect to hear back from any of the agents for another four to eight weeks, but I'm not giving up and I'm not going to sit around waiting for nothing.  Next up on my block is to start planning a second novel!  My fingers are already starting to itch again, and the writing bug is as strong as ever.  So I'll keep you updated on where I go next, and hopefully, someone else will find my personal story helpful in their own journey as a writer.