Schooled in the Art of Writing

I sit in the coffee shop staring into my steaming brew. The fragrance of what’s left of a bowl of French onion soup threatens to overpower the delightful scent of the hot coffee mug cradled between my hands. My gaze drifts to the clock on the wall (one of many as this coffee house is appropriately named Around the Clock). Quarter to one in the morning. Like every night my husband and I sit and have coffee, meeting with our friends after late shifts of work. The current topic of conversation is the recent birth of my best friend’s twin boys. Everyone is excited, including myself. She elected to name me godmother. Tonight it hits me. My husband and I are not well off, we survive from payday to payday with nothing left over. I have nothing to give to these two beautiful boys.

Sensing my angst, my husband looks over at me and asks what’s wrong. I explain that when I was a child my godparents treated my brother, sister, and I like we were their children. Not only did I grow up knowing them closely, but they bought us gifts every year for birthdays, Christmas, and special occasions like graduation. “I have no money and nothing to give,” I tell him. “You’re joking, right? You’re a writer. Write them a book,” he replies. I think about this for a minute. What sort of book would I write for a couple of little boys?

The conversation turns to the newest Lord of the Rings movie and it hits me. What do all little boys like? Dragons and swords and medieval times.

The Inspiration and Dedication to Beginnings

The girl who never read a fantasy book in her life set out to become the author of one. Unsure where to start she turned to the pages of Dragonlance to get some idea of where to go with this completely foreign style of writing. She learned something important as she started to expand upon her knowledge of this new genre of books: fantasy = freedom. She was creatively able to do anything from making an illogical race of creatures logical, to creating an entire world and its lore, to giving everyday items new and interesting names. She as the author was quite literally God and Creator in one.

Unlike other books she wrote in the past where she just put her fingers to the keyboard and started writing, this time she took her time, planned and plotted, wrote prophecies and created lore. She researched methods that other successful fantasy writers used and sought advice from writers anywhere she could find it. She began to turn a hobby into a craft, a profession. She didn’t anticipate just how much work a professional writer put into one piece of work.

Plot, characters, the world itself, eventually comes together beautifully. I sit again in the coffee shop across from my husband, talking about the world I created and the creatures within it. When I begin talking about dragons and elves he gets a look on his face that reminds me of a child watching their favorite toy get smashed. What am I doing wrong, I wonder? So I ask. “You can make up stories and such for your dragons and elves and find a way to make them your own, but there is a certain lore that you still have to abide by. There are too many people who take the lore of certain creatures seriously. You can’t just smash it and create something new. You have to mold it into something of your own.” (It wasn’t until Twilight came out many years later that I finally understood what he meant. Vampires couldn’t be sparkly daywalkers. The very concept went so far from the lore of vampires that an entire community of people rejected the series on that fact alone. This is what he was trying to explain to me.)

Research. This single word became the bane of the author’s existence, her kryptonite. Yet how could she expect to produce a great book, something worthy of remembrance, if she didn’t do her research and get it right? So back to the internet she went, digging up information on dragons and elves, reading from Dungeon Master guides to find out what the basic standards were. Once that was finished she began to reshape the lore into something unique to her own world.

Finally, the author was ready to write. She wrote during all of her spare time, turning the book into a first draft novel. She wrote at coffee shops, at home, made notes while at work. The book was always in the back of the author’s mind, waiting for something new to come out. She spent more time planning the book than writing it. The entire process, from the birth of the idea to the final pages of the book, took nearly two years. Satisfied with the work, the author stared at the final words on the screen, smiling.

In the process of creating her masterpieces, the author begins to unknowingly separate herself from those around her.

Learning to Accept Change

So she wrote a book, now what? She had no idea what to do with the personal masterpiece in front of her. Again, she turned to others for advice. Fellow writers in the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association were there to help. They pointed her in the correct direction and shared valuable online resources. With a grumble she dug back into the research, only this time to find information on how to effectively re-write. (Wait, I have to re-write? Okay well logically that made sense.) The author began to print the book, going through it for grammar and spelling errors, checking for inconsistencies and trying to tighten up the overall story.

Re-writing. Ugh. “This takes forever,” I mumble to my husband, head resting on my upturned palm. The coffee cup beside my pages is empty, as it has been for some time. I grab the thermos carafe and go to pour another cup, mumbling under my breath when nothing more than a trickle comes out. It’s sometime in the early afternoon. I’m not sure when and I’m not sure I want to know. Like most afternoons these days the two of us sit at Country Kitchen. We likely have been sitting for three hours drinking coffee and working, sharing a light lunch of potato soup and a salad. Across the booth he is working on more of his tablet art, brows drawn down in deep concentration. I sigh and put down the red pen, turning my attention to the long row of windows across the restaurant. White flakes of snow drift down from the sky at a lazy pace, yet they fall in droves. For a few minutes I just watch, waiting for the waitress to come check on us so we can get our thermos carafe refilled.

“Did you say something?” my husband asks, finally looking up from his work. Typically, he put so much concentration into what he was doing that it takes several minutes for words to sink in. I nod, turned sideways in the booth. There is no way I’m doing more editing without coffee for fuel. “This editing and re-writing stuff is a pain, that’s all. Just projecting my frustration.” The waitress finally comes over with a fresh carafe in hand, replacing the empty one on the table. I sit up straight again and pour a cup, then go back to work.

Learning the Ropes of the Publishing Industry

After the author finished the re-write she began looking at the AAR (Association of Author Representatives) site to find approved agents and publishers. From there she pulled a decently sized list of agents who worked specifically with fantasy novels. She went to each of their websites and read their submission guidelines, making notes about who wanted what. There were some seeking only query letters to start, others who wanted a one page synopsis, some who wanted a longer four to five page synopsis. Some wanted the first chapter or the first thirty pages; others wanted the first five chapters or the first fifty pages. Others still wanted a little of each. But there was one requirement that was fairly consistent with all of them. They would accept submissions only between 80,000 to 100,000 words.

The concept of judging a book by word count instead of the number of pages was an entirely new concept to the author. She didn’t understand why the number of words mattered more than the number of pages until she put a little more thought into it. Even if formatting was required to be done in a certain way, some programs would see the total number of pages differently than others, some people would ignore the requirements and change margins and the like to either shrink or stretch page count, but word count never lied. It told the agent or publisher how long a book was regardless of how many pages it was.

The trouble the author really had with this new requirement for word count was getting within the parameters. The novel was well over the maximum parameter, which meant she not only had to go through and skim thousands upon thousands of words off her total word count, but once that was done she had to go through the whole book again for a re-write to make sure it was still a consistent story.

Another year passed while she chopped and re-wrote the entire novel, researched how to write up both long and brief synopsis of the book then wrote them, researched and composed what should be in a query letter and wrote one, put together her submission packages (only after she double checked to make sure they were as per each individual agent’s requirements) and made sure they were addressed specifically to that agent instead of just a general person. It’s a lot of work that she never saw coming when she started the project.

While drafting the query letter to fill in the blanks for each agent one thing was obviously missing. An author needed credentials. She could call herself a writer, an author, all she wanted, but when it came to listing publishing credits her letter had massive vacancy. She needed something, anything at all, to fill that space. Even if there was only one publishing credit to list it was better than nothing at all. So the author, dedicated to this book, set out to write short stories and get them published.

This research took forever. First the author had to find out who published the sort of writing she was working on, then find out who accepted submissions when, how long they could be, and what their submission requirements were. She wrote a number of short stories to fulfill the requirements of what each were looking for and submitted them. Most she never heard back from, a handful responded.

The Price of the Author’s Dedication

Time passes. The warm air of May caresses my face as I sit on the front porch. So much went wrong over the last few months. I look at yet another rejection letter after getting off the phone with my best friend and the mother of the twins that this is all was started for. The conversation didn’t go well. I haven’t seen her in nearly a year because I spend so much time writing. She’s getting married in another year and tells me that her wedding party will consist of only family. This news hurts. Years ago she and I made a promise to each other that we would be in each other’s wedding. I upheld my end. She wasn’t going to. Life, it seems, has pulled us apart. I lean my head against the railing of the porch and call my mother-in-law to talk, tears rolling down my cheeks. I have worked for the last three years on this book for the boys and not only did I have nothing to show for it, but my best friend was pulling away. Loneliness overcomes me as I talk this through with my mother-in-law. “Have faith in the Lord,” she tells me. “He will reward you when the time is right, but don’t give up on your writing. You love it too much to quit now.” (Why not quit? It’s done nothing for me so far.)

My husband pulls in the driveway as the mailman walks up to the front porch with a package in hand. It’s doubtful that any of the publishers sent my story back so I wonder what the package is as I say goodbye to my mother-in-law and hang up the phone. The rest of the mail sits on the stoop beside me as I open the package addressed to me and pull out a book. Chicken Soup for the Wine Lover’s Soul. Tears fill my eyes and I can’t help but being to cry all over again. My husband walks up to me and crouches down, concern on his face. My dear, wonderful, supportive husband.

“What’s wrong?” For once I can answer openly and honestly, but I cannot find the words. Instead I hand over the book, open to a specific page. As he looks down at the page the expression on his face shifts from concern to happiness. “Honey this is great news!” He sits beside me and puts an arm around me. “I know.” I can’t stop crying. “Your mother . . .” But I can’t finish. (“Have faith in the Lord and he will reward you when the time is right.” Her words still impact me every day.) I don’t need to finish because he seems to understand. He knows I have been struggling with the fact that I feel cut off from the world as I work on my writing, that no one seems to understand what I am working toward, that my friends are all drifting away. “Honey, you’re published now,” he whispers, holding me close. The happiness is too much for me and I start crying all over again, leaning against him.

 Personal Preparation for Possible Publication

Getting published seemed like a snowball effect after one piece was accepted. By the end of the summer the author had works published in writing trade journals, online e-zines, collected works books, as well as an award for a short story. The goal was to build credentials for the novel’s query letter, and it was me with success. (Why was I thinking about giving up again?) Eager, she sent out her submission packages and anxiously waited for the next three to six months for a response.

While waiting for responses to come back the clever author didn’t just sit on her hands; she actively researched more writing resources, organizations and clubs, advice, instruction, and so much more. The world of publishing became a new goal for her. An insurmountable mountain that she was determined to conquer. She learned everything she could about this brave new world she so badly wanted to be a part of.

Per the advice of nearly every author she read up on and spoke to, she purchased her first website and got to work setting it up. Without a website there was little chance of success in the new technological age. Not only did readers want somewhere to go for information, but publishers and agents scouted websites to find out a little more about the author they were interested in signing with. This meant more research into what sort of content and organization the site would need.

Research, research, and more research. This was what the author’s life became. During this process those friends who were earlier separated from her began to pull even further away, family complained that she didn’t come around enough. Though everyone claimed to support and encourage the ambitious author on this endeavor she felt very little of that as time passed. She became so engrossed in her goal, her dream, that it separated her from the very people she started all of this for. (Where was I going with all of this again?)

Realization of the Author’s Dream

Today is a day like any other. I get up, go to work, perform my opening duties, and then proceed to check my email. So far I read a lot of very nicely worded “no’s,” a couple of “please send us more’s,” and not a single “yes.” And so far all of those who asked for more sent me very nicely worded “no’s.” Still, I know that even authors such as Stephen King and Robert Jordan heard more than one hundred no’s before finally receiving their first yes, so I hold on to hope and continue watching my email and mailbox. A publisher has responded back. (Finally!) Expecting the same old same old I click on the link and open the mail.

“Dear Mrs. Davies, we would be pleased to bring you on board with us. There are two documents attached . . .” The email goes on but the words don’t register. Instead I sit and stare at the screen, blinking in amazement. Yes? Yes! I begin to bounce in my chair and a co-worker looks over at me, asking what’s wrong. I tell her that one of the publishers has agreed to accept my novel, I just have to sign the contract and that’s that. She grins at me. “I told you it would happen.” I just have to sign the contract and that’s that. (What was I thinking? As if it would be any easier to go through the publishing processes than it had been to go through the writing and query process.)

In the end this alienation or separation of self from loved ones paid off with a contract.

Like a smart author she didn’t just sign the contract and send it back to the publisher. She printed it out, read through it, picked it apart, and made sure that there was nothing that would get her into trouble later. It took a couple of days to get through the legal-speak but eventually she was satisfied enough to sign it and send it back. What happened next was beyond imagining.

For the next six months the author spent a lot of time in correspondence with the editor. There were multiple re-writes that needed to be done, cover art discussions, examinations, and approvals. She attended local festivals; spoke with locally owned book stores about distribution. By the time it was all said and done four years passed since the beginning of this creative endeavor and she now had only her husband to share my happiness with when the book was finally released.

Understanding of the Effects of Separation of Self from World

The book is finally published. After work I drive to the college to pick up my husband. He greets me with a big hug and tells me he is starving and wants to get home right away so we can get dinner going. I agree. On the way we chat with each other about our day, or anything else that comes to mind. It’s a drive like any other. When we pull into the driveway he seems eager to beat me to the door. I suppose it’s possible he has to use the bathroom so I don’t think twice about it. I walk in the door, pass through the kitchen, and nearly fall over as I turn the light on and am greeted with a chorus of “Surprise!”

Friends! Friends I hardly had time to speak to, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, all smile at me. My husband is beaming as he hugs me and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Tears well up in my eyes as I say hello to all of my friends, giving hugs to each. A banner hangs over the entryway that divides the living room from the dining room, proclaiming congratulations. My copy of Blood Forsaken is being passed around the room as everyone takes a peek between the covers. “We all know how hard you have been working and how important this book is to you, so we thought there was no better way to say congratulations than to come together and celebrate by taking you out to dinner,” my friend Jody tells me. “And bring over some wine for after dinner,” Rosey adds with a laugh and a grin, a bottle of my favorite Chianti in his hands.

“This was their idea,” my husband whispers into my ear. That’s it. I start to cry as the happiness fills me up. The only regret I had up to this point was that I felt like I lost all of my friends in pursuit of this dream. (I really have always had amazing friends. Why did I doubt them?) But one is missing. The one that I started all of this for couldn’t make it. The thought saddens me, but only for a moment. How can I be sad when surrounded by so many friends?

The author learned a lot from this experience, the separation of self from the rest of the world as she pursued this dream. What started out as a simple idea turned into something else entirely, something she could look back on with pride. She learned that no dream is easy to achieve. She came to realize that friends, true friends, would always be there. She began to understand that her family was far more proud than they ever let on. The separation of self from those around the author was not permanent, nor would it ever be.

(“Have faith in the lord,” my mother-in-law once told me. “He will reward you when the time is right.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that I already had my reward: family and friends who loved and supported me even if they were not always around.)

The book is done. Time for a new adventure. Eager to keep the ball rolling, a new set of characters bursting at my brain, I sit in front of my computer screen, fingers on the keyboard, ready to start the adventure again . . . only this time I can’t wait.

————————————————-

This story was inspired by Richard Rodriguez’s, “The Achievement of Desire,” in the anthology Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford, 2011. 515-32. Print.

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One thought on “Schooled in the Art of Writing

  1. Cngpsygal says:

    I’m glad your surprise made you so happy. 🙂 It was actually a two fold, 1. because you were published and 2. to let you know that you were apart of the group. 🙂 Hugs

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