My Writing Journey

As you can see by the title of this post, I began it with the intention of chronicling my writing journey. What was supposed to be a simple blog post turned into a short story of over 5k words. So I should probably label this "My bio with a strong emphasis on how writing has played a role in forming me into the person I am." But that would be too long of a title, so I'll just keep the original. So here goes. :) It's long, so... 

I’ve been a writer as far back as I can remember. In my earlier years, I didn’t realize that’s what it was. They called me a day dreamer, a kid who would not pay attention in class, who seemed always to be somewhere else. In those days, at least where I grew up as a missionary kid in Brazil, no one was diagnosed with attention deficit problems. Good thing, too, because I probably would have been thrown into that category, and it would have followed me around for the rest of my life. I paid attention. I just didn’t pay attention to the things adults wanted me to pay attention to. Why would I when the worlds of my own making were so much more fascinating?

Stories were  are my life. As a child I loved to read. At age 9 I discovered the world of Narnia, and when I got to “The End” of The Last Battle, I went into a mild (and, fortunately, short lived) depression. The adventure was over. The books belonged to friends, and I had to give them back, otherwise I would have started reading them all over again. I eventually realized I could find Narnia, or my own world, in my mind. I was always a grounded kid. Never had an imaginary friend. I clearly knew the difference between the real world I wanted to escape and the fictitious world in my mind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have a horrible life. I was raised in a family that, despite having its own unique set of problems, as all families do, was loving and nurturing. I was never the popular kid in school, but I always had at least a friend or two that filled my need for companionship. But in my own little world I could be whatever or whomever I wanted to be. I could go wherever I wanted to go, do whatever I wanted to do, AND be good at it.

As I grew into the angsty teen years, writing was my way of organizing my thoughts. In my early teens I would often write a letter to the guy I liked at the time, expressing all that I felt for him. Then I would fold it up neatly and put it away in a shoebox never to be seen by eyes other than my own. But hey, it worked. Helped me to get a handle on my feelings, which helped me deal with them. Well, sort of. I began to keep a diary around age 13. Something that, just three years later, would come in handy as I faced the most difficult time in my young life.

My entire 15th year was difficult. We had moved to a new part of the country, and I had to go away to a boarding school. I had never been parted from my parents for more than a couple of weeks. It was a hard transition, getting used to a new town, a new school, a new set of (dorm) parents, and trying to fit in and find new friends. Have I mentioned that I'm an only child? I didn't even have a sibling to share this with. By April of that year, my tenth grade year, I had finally found my niche. I had shaken off the need for the people who were supposed to be my friends but weren’t, and had accepted that there were others with whom I really clicked. I was actually starting to like my new life. And then I got the phone call.

I was nursing a skinned knee from sliding into first base in softball that afternoon. (Ok, so I didn’t actually slide, but rather tripped over first base and went sprawling in the dust. But at least I was safe!) Living in a dorm 700 miles away from your family, before internet and emails made instant communication common place, we looked forward to letters, and, gasp! the occasional, much longed for phone call. I limped down the hallway as best I could after my dorm mother told me I had a call from my mom. My joy was short lived. Mom told me the first of what would be in the following week an ongoing list of bad news. 

My father had gotten a piece of meat stuck in his throat, they went to the doctor to check it out, doc said he had a tumor and it needed to be operated on, and Mom said, sure, but not here. By the time Mom called, Dad was already back in the US, installed in a hospital, and awaiting surgery. No one said the word cancer, the doctors in Brazil had, in fact, assured my mother and father that it was very likely a benign tumor. But cancer was my greatest fear. The very next day, a Friday, I got called into the principal’s office. Uh-oh. I didn’t do anything wrong, so why do they want to talk to me, I wondered. Mom had called the school and asked that they get me back to the dorm ASAP so I could pack and catch a bus that evening back to Recife,  the city where my parents lived. It's an all night trip on the bus. Got in Saturday morning, helped Mom and some friends pack up our apartment, found a little time to run down to the beach and grieve that I would be leaving it, and flew out Sunday afternoon for the United States to be with my dad. 

We arrived at the hospital where my dad was on Monday morning, April 26. The doctors had not operated, but they had done a biopsy of the lymph nodes. Cancer. But no worries. It might not have spread far. They figured  they would cut it out, sew him up, and in six months or less he could be back to work in Brazil. Thursday, one week to the day after I got that life changing phone call from my mom, Dad had his surgery. After six hours (which I know now is really not a long time for a surgery but seemed an eternity for us that day), the doctor came out to talk to us with tears in his eyes. There was nothing they could do other than place a tube in Dad’s esophagus so he could get a little soft food in him. The cancer had taken over the outside of his stomach and had moved up the esophagus, squeezing it almost shut so that, until they put that tube in, Dad was having a hard time just getting water down. By March of the following year he was gone. My mom and I spent ten harrowing months of watching my strong, active father grow weaker and weaker while he wasted away to skin and bones.

If anyone were to read my diary from that horrible year, they might be surprised to find very little in my writing that dealt with my father’s sickness. It was all about school, friends...boys. All the normal stuff that teen girls write about. And I guess in the midst of all of that, what I needed from my writing was a little bit of normalcy. Kinda funny to think that teen angst could be an escape from reality, but there you have it. Writing in that diary helped me to feel a little normal when my life was turned upside down.

It was also during this time period that I wrote my first novel. (Ok, so just like my fall from sliding into first base was “giving the truth scope” calling this little story a novel is really pushing it, too.) My dad somehow found me an old fashioned, manual typewriter. You know the kind. With the ribbon of ink and the keys striking, and the carriage return lever that you have to manually push when you get to the end of the line. Loved that typewriter. Wish I still had it. Didn’t value the treasure I had in that machine. I wrote this silly little story about a marine biologist and her best friend who found love with a couple of divers. (Did I mention that both the city my parents lived in and the one where I went to school were beach towns in the North East of Brazil? Beautiful beaches, too.) I wish I still had that story. It would make for a really great laugh. But since it was done on paper and I didn’t have access to a copy machine at the time, I packaged my manuscript up and sent it off to my best friend who still lived in Brazil. Once again, through my writing, I was able to go somewhere else. Be someone else. Anyone and anywhere that wasn’t my real life.

I still didn’t realize that I wanted to be or even could be a real author. I thought writing books was only for famous people, never realizing that even the most famous authors were unknowns at some point in time. Stories came to my mind, but it wasn’t until my Senior year in high school that, sitting in English class, my teacher said something that got the gears whirring in my mind. A plot began to form, and I realized once and for all that I wanted to write stories.

In college I got away from the journaling. Too much reading and academic writing going on for me to spend much time on a diary. While those of the secular world would consider my college years dull (there were no wild parties, drinking all night and experimenting with drugs and sex and everything else the media tells us is a natural must of the college experience), they were some of the best years of my youth. And I guess because they were happy years, that’s why my writing was mainly academic and the occasional letter. But I discovered I even liked academic writing. My professors often commented that I had a nice writing style. And I believed them, especially when those comments were almost always backed up by A's.

Fast forward to my first year of marriage. What a roller coaster ride that year was! My mom didn’t like my husband (she's gotten over that, now, thank God!), most of my friends agreed with her without finding out who he was for themselves, and his friends mostly abandoned us because they wanted to “give us space”. We had each other and that’s about it. It was difficult to go through, but in the long run it was good for us. It helped us to bond. Three nights a week he worked from 7 PM to 7AM, so I was home alone in the evenings. Ugh! I hated those nights, but I went back to writing. Played around with some story ideas. I had a real dinosaur of a computer that had no hard drive. Anything I wrote had to be saved on a floppy. No, not one of those plastic mini disks that might have survived a raging inferno or 2 year olds, but the big, thinly protected, truly floppy, floppy disks. Lost all of that writing when the disk got bent by the two year old I was babysitting at the time. Probably a good thing, too.

Just about a year and a half after we married, we moved from the Washington, D.C. area that I loved, to Dallas, TX. I love Dallas now, but at the time, it was a very difficult move for me. I loved trees, seasons, hills. Dallas, compared to the DC area, had few trees, no hills, and only two seasons—hot and less hot. I continued fiddling around with writing.

Then I got pregnant with my first little blessing, lost my job and my health insurance five months into the pregnancy, had to go on Medicaid with three-hours-or-more-past-the-scheduled-time waits to see a doctor. Didn’t have a laptop or iPad or smart phone to keep me company, so I did a lot of reading. And crocheting. And cross stitch. But once my daughter was born, I found writing again. But this time I started to take it more seriously. It wasn’t as much an escape now. I had a husband who loved me, and the most beautiful daughter ever. I had no need to escape. I suppose it was entertaining, but for the first time I realized how much I enjoyed the journey. I didn’t know anything about plotting, characterization, setting, show don’t tell and so on. I just wrote about my characters as the story came to me. And each day when I had to turn that computer off and leave my characters—and myself—hanging, it was agony. I just couldn’t wait til my daughter’s nap time the following day for me to get back to the computer and find out what would happen next in my own story.

I guess you could say that was my first real novel. And when I say novel, I’m not exaggerating this time. It was 120,000 words of pure, amateurish and agonizing junk. I know that now, but I had no idea at the time just how bad it was. But the story was intriguing. I made my husband read it, and to this day he says it’s the best story he’s ever read. Bless his heart.

After five long, hot years in Dallas, we moved to North Carolina. That’s where my writing really took off. I met a lady, also a writer, who became a very dear friend. We began to co-write the next best-selling epic novel about a handful of young Irish kids trying to survive in a 19th century Fenian underworld. (Never heard of our book? Well, we never finished it. Even after a lovely trip to Ireland for “research purposes”.)

After 3 happy years in North Carolina, we moved to Brazil. This was another move I didn’t really want to make, but I knew God had asked it of us, and I was not going to be disobedient to His call. Of course, in that first year of adjustment, I spent a lot of time on my computer…writing. Even before we left the US, I had joined a couple of online writer’s groups. These became my links to the English world once we were in Brazil. I dabbled with writing and critiquing and being critiqued, and began to really learn the craft. No, seriously. I discovered that I had been writing “by the seat of my pants” instead of plotting out ahead of time, that I had not been putting enough thought into who my characters were, where they came from, where they were going, why they did the things they did etc. I found out that I used far too many adjectives, adverbs, and passive verbs. (I honestly still struggle with having to amputate adjectives and adverbs from my work. I think it’s a stupid rule. They are wonderfully, perfectly, descriptively lovely parts of speech that shouldn’t be discriminated against!) Oh! And exclamation points! And speaker tags, she said. Those are taboo as well. (Although, I get those. The fewer of either in a story, the better.) And while one of my writing mentors called me a sponge because I thirstily soaked up everything she threw at me, writing began to lose its fascination. It became a chore. Something that was no longer fun and entertaining, but something I had to work really hard to perfect if I wanted it to go anywhere. I didn’t like plotting. It took the suspense out of the journey. And just like you don’t know everything about a friend when you first meet them, and it's enjoyable to spend time with them in order to get to know them, I didn’t want to flesh out everything about my characters before I had even started writing their story. I wanted to get to know them as I wrote about them. But I kept at it. I knew that if I ever wanted to get my work published, I had to follow the rules.

I got my first acceptance for a novel I wrote during those years of online Writing 101. It was through a small, print-on-demand/e-publisher, but it was still validation for me. I had a book published, one I could hold in my hands and touch the paper and see the words I had written printed there. Thing is, I didn’t know the first thing about marketing. And marketing from a foreign country was even more difficult. So it didn’t go very far or sell much. I realized that to get help with the marketing aspect, I would need to find a bigger, more traditional house to publish my stories, and so I started to work toward that end.

One day I received a divinely inspired brainstorm for the perfectly unique story that would catapult me to instant published success. I began to write, and research, and write, and plot. It still took me several years or writing, re-writing, editing and so on, but I was also homeschooling my kids, helping lead the drama team in our church, and working along side my husband with the youth at church which included weekly Wednesday night Bible studies in our home, and Friday movie nights, also at our house, where we had anywhere from 30 to 70 kids spread out in our open-plan loft, half of which often stayed over night because it was too late and too dangerous for them to walk home once the movie had ended. (Ok, breathe, now. Sorry about the run on, even if the punctuation was in there.) I miss those days. Truly. And writing often had to take a back seat. With reason. 

God eventually called us back to the US. We moved to Iowa so my husband could be trained in hospital chaplaincy. We decided to spare our girls by not totally turning their lives upside down after uprooting them from the only life they really knew in Brazil. So for one more year while we all adjusted to being back in the States, I continued to homeschool. Got some writing done, but the second year in Iowa when the girls went to school and I was home alone all day long, living in a tiny apartment which was easy to keep reasonably clean, I had a lot of time to write. I perfected my masterpiece and began to seriously pursue publishing. I went to the yearly conference of the ACFW writer’s group I had belonged to since its second month of existence. This was a conference I had longed to attend for six years, but it was out of the question as long as we lived in Brazil. I met wonderful people, many of whom were great friends online, but whom I was now meeting in person. 

I got several nibbles for my story, one which turned into a real possibility. I got a critique from a well established, published author, who gave me great tips, and told me I had real talent. I was sure that would be my year. I worked and reworked that story according to the tips and critiques I had been given by people in the industry, sent it off to an editor from a big name Christian publisher, the publisher of my dreams, and waited. This editor really fought for me. She believed in my writing, got the story past the first hurtle. But...the story wasn’t right for that house at that point in time. But hey, it was an open door, and I figured my time would come. Soon. I could feel it in my bones. My time to be published was just around the corner.

And if you're still with me, you'll have to tune back in tomorrow to get the rest. :) Have a great day!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beauty and the Mona Lisa Smile

Lessons from the Garden - Plant or Weed?

The Plot Thickens...