Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How I Became a Writer

I recently went to Texas Library Association's annual conference in Austin Texas. While I was there, I had a chance to tell a group of amazing librarians my "How I Became a Writer" story. I thought I'd share here.

I was not one of those people who knew from the time they were able to hold a pencil that they wanted to be an author. Early in our marriage, my husband always said to me “You should write a book.” And I would give him the most baffled, confused look. One I'm sure was pretty close to the look I would've given him if he'd have said, “You should be Batman.” or “You should be a unicorn.” 

It wasn’t until my baby started Kindergarten that I knew. I was making dinner one night when a hilarious story popped into my head about the teenage versions of two of my friends. So I wrote the story, which ended up being about 100 pages, and gave it to both of them as a gift. That’s when I realized how incredible it is to create characters— an entire world, even— using nothing more than thoughts in my head. And then to be able to actually share that world with someone else. It’s an amazingly powerful thing.

The story was called PIVOTAL, and ironically enough, writing that story became a rather pivotal moment in my life.

I had been reading middle grade books to my kids at bedtime for several years. When I read PIVOTAL to them, that’s when I KNEW I wanted to be an author. I wanted to write books for kids— books that parents could read out loud to their kids at bedtime.

From that moment, I didn’t wade into the writing world. I jumped off into the deep end. When I decided that was what I wanted to do, I started reading everything about writing I could find online and in books. I started researching writers conferences. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

Yet I knew that writing and writing and writing wasn’t going to be enough. Unless I was learning enough that I was improving my craft with all that writing, writing itself wasn't going to move me further along. I knew that the amount I needed to learn was unfathomly vast, and that I needed to find a way to learn it.

Not long after, a friend of mine handed me the book MISTBORN by Brandon Sanderson. When I finished, I was, of course, blown away. (As most people are when they read MISTBORN.) I read the bio, and saw that he taught creative writing at BYU. I was not a student at BYU, and they weren’t the type of University who would accept my application to take just one class. Taking a class from him was downright impossible. Yet I looked ahead at the road I wanted to be on. I knew that everyone had a different way of getting on that road just as surely as I knew that taking this path was the exact way for me to get on that road.

And I wasn’t about to let a little thing like an impossibility trip me up. So, with my heart in my hand, I went to one of Brandon Sanderson’s signings (before the first Wheel of Time book came out, so his lines weren’t hours long yet), and chatted with him about writing until he invited me to audit his class. (You can imagine what an emotional moment this was. I’m not too proud to admit that the second I stepped out of the building, I cried.)

Going to his class was a pretty incredible thing. In a few months, I learned what would’ve taken me years to learn outside of his class. He also put us together into writing groups, and that’s where I met the people who I would spend the next four years meeting with weekly, getting feedback on my writing. He also introduced me to a lot of great writers conferences, where not only did I learn greatly about writing, but where I met an entire writing community. I am very indebted to Brandon. It was a pretty sweet thing when, after I got my book deal, he invited me back to his creative writing class to talk about my publication story.

I continued to squeeze in writing and learning about writing into every free moment I had. It was within that first year after Brandon’s class that I got the initial idea for Sky Jumpers. I let it percolate for nine months while I was working on other projects. I knew from the start that the idea was solid, and if I worked hard enough at my craft and at this book— if I was persistent and didn’t give up until I knew it was as good as possible— that it had a real chance.

And I wanted it to have that chance. I sent it chapter by chapter through my writing group. Then I had dozens of beta readers give me feedback. I used to work at an elementary school with fourth graders who struggle with literacy and math. One of the teachers I worked with read the book to her class, and I got to be at the back of the room working one on one with kids while she was reading it. Recess was right after read aloud, and I got to see at what points she would close the book and they’d run out to recess, and at what points she’d close the book, and they would beg to stay in from recess if she would read more. Not only hearing my book in someone else’s voice, but hearing on the playground what they talked about and what they played was invaluable.

Sky Jumpers was on its eleventh draft when I decided it was finally ready for me to query agents. I had spent 5 months working on my query letter. I know! It’s a long time to work on something that’s only ½ page long. But it paid off— I got my first request for my manuscript nine minutes into querying, and that agent offered representation. I signed with a different agent who also offered, and shortly after, Random House bought it in a pre-empt eight days after it had gone on submission.

As a kid, I grew up in a place with untamed places to explore, lots of siblings, parents who let us be daring, and a brother on each side of me who were both daredevils and brilliant. (I don’t know if you’ve experienced the combo of daring and brilliant and boy, but basically it means that we got into so really dangerous situations. It also meant they were able to get us out of most of those situations accident free. ;)) Put all those things together, and I was basically living one gigantic action / adventure. I know that’s why I’m drawn to writing action / adventure books— it’s so easy to tap into the thrilling experiences I had as a child.

And I definitely feel like my elementary school years were the most memorable. And the most exciting. And the most enjoyable. And the most magical. That’s probably why I will never tire of writing for kids who are those same ages.