On her blog, Nova Ren Suma has been running a series of guest points about authors’ Turning Points, and as so many of her series do, it got me to thinking. What would I call my Turning Point as a writer?
I was a little surprised to find that it involved saying goodbye to a long-held dream.
I fell into theatre when I was in sixth grade. Shy, quiet little Dot was befriended on the school bus by an eighth grader named Faith, and one day she invited me to a before-school meeting in the drama teacher’s portable. It was the Junior Thespian group at the middle school.
And they scared me to death.
They were loud and boisterous and noisy, most of them had no sense of personal bubble, and they simply pulled me into their midst as if they expected me to be one of them. Before I had any idea what was going on, I was cast in an ensemble piece and preparing for State. After that, I was a goner. I fell in love with theatre the way I’d only ever fallen in love with books before. There was something magical about taking words on a page and somehow wrapping them around you like an extra layer of costume, something terrifying and thrilling about stepping out onto a stage and becoming someone else entirely. I could step out of myself, and for someone as shy and self-conscious as I was, that was like a gift.
The next two years I was an officer and competed in more events, worked on the shows in school, brought more of my friends into it, and then came high school where theatre became an even bigger part of my life. I did my first community shows. I competed every year. I was an official officer for two years and an unofficial officer for another year. I did every show, every variety show, volunteered with my old middle school group as a sort of mentor/coach. I learned that theatre has a dark side- for every amazing thing that can happen, there are two and three bad or horrible things that can walk hand in hand with the wonder. I learned that people can be cruel and ambitious, that people can be driven beyond the point of basic human courtesy. I learned that something as emotionally overwhelming as theatre can also be emotionally shattering.
But that didn’t stop me from pursuing it in college. I wanted it. I wanted the banks of lights and the orchestra and that hushed moment where you step out on stage and take a breath and the entire audience holds their’s until suddenly there’s a sound- a note or a word- and everything changes. What I really wanted, but had no idea how to pursue, was animation voiceovers, for movies and video games and the like.
College made me face some hard truths about what I wanted, and harder truths about what I had the potential to achieve. I faced blackballing by professors, severe discrimination against mutts like myself (mutts enjoy both technical and performance theatre- most theatre students are snobs and only pursue one of them). Finally, as my senior year was drawing to a close, I had to make a very scary choice.
Do I keep pursuing theatre?
And after months of agonizing, my decision was no. Not professionally.
I was good, but not good enough to make it on pure talent. I wasn’t pretty enough to make it on pure looks. And I wasn’t driven enough- not cutthroat or ruthless enough- to make it on pure will. I wanted it, but not enough to give up who I was.
I came to theatre in sixth grade, but I’d always been writing. Since I knew how to shape the letters I was putting them down, and even before that I was telling the stories. Part of the reason I fell so thoroughly into theatre was because it was familiar. I’d been acting out my stories and characters for years- this was just playing through someone else’s. And I wrote in theatre as well, winning a few prizes in competition and seeing scenes get performed in the school variety shows.
Writing informed a lot of my views of theatre, just as theatre came to inform how I looked at my writing. What I took away from my years in drama is beyond value or description when it comes to the skills I gained as a writer.
And it was in that senior year, as I agonized over that decision and what I was genuinely capable of, that I finished my first polished novel. I’d written a few novels before, in the end of high school and first year of college, even submitted one of them to a publisher, but this was the first one where I seriously sat down and focused on the craft. It was for my honors thesis, and when I turned it in to my thesis advisor, he took me out for a beer at the tavern on the satellite campus and told me baldly that if I didn’t pursue publishing, I was insane.
Four years in college and he was the first professor to tell me I should pursue something.
The strangest part of that? I never had a class with him. I approached him to be my thesis advisor on the advice of one of the honors college advisors. Before that meeting I’d never met him, never even heard of him. He didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me; the only thing he had to judge me on was the work I did, the way I met my deadlines, and the finished product. And after six months of working with him through email, I’d come to hear more about him from some of his students, and he didn’t give compliments effusively. He never told a student to pursue something if he didn’t think that student had genuine potential.
And as I turned that over in my head, I realized that writing and publishing had always been part of the dream, they just hadn’t been the part I’d focused on. There was never a point in my life where I didn’t imagine myself writing- I just thought it would be during breaks in rehearsals, gaps between shows.
That summer, I was two thousand miles from home and couldn’t get a job. Between putting out applications all over Colorado Springs and praying that I’d get calls off of them, I did a lot of reading. Some writing, but mostly reading. I re-read favorite books to determine why I loved them so much. I pulled off books that I can’t stand but for some reason keep re-reading and tried to figure out what was so compelling about them that I could disappear in them despite my dislike for them. I read new authors, tried new genres, started reading non-fiction for fun. I critically read what I’d written before, noting what worked and what didn’t, places I needed to improve and overall skills I needed to acquire.
And that fall, when I moved back home after five months of unemployment, I got a job at a bookstore within a month and started a new story. It was unlike anything I’d ever written before.
It was Young Adult.
Looking back, I think my voice had always been within YA, but I hadn’t ever thought of it as a separate category. It seems so logical now but as a separate set of shelves in the bookstores, it’s not that old. Everything I’d written before, my voice didn’t match my story and my characters. I was trying to write things I loved, but I wasn’t writing them well, because they weren’t mine.
That fall, I stopped trying to rely on writing a few words here and there and went to the patterns I’d established for my thesis. I found a few fast food places that didn’t mind students (or student like people) camping out for hours at a time. On days off or days where I didn’t have to be at work until four or five, I woke up and went out with my notebooks and my iPod, and I wrote. Without distractions, without excuses, I wrote. And as I became a regular fixture in the booths, the employees started asking me about my progress, and they’d twit me if I hadn’t been productive, tease me about my excuses or reasons. So I did my best to make sure I didn’t have those non-productive days.
I finished that novel.
I polished it to the extent that I knew how.
I researched publishing and agents, how to query. I spent hours at a time on Agent Query and buried in Writer’s Market. I wrote a query letter and sent it off, and while I waited (very impatiently) for responses, I wrote the second book in the trilogy. I got responses- from that first batch, all rejections- and rewrote my query letter. I sent off again to new agents. I got a couple of bites this time, and when those second-step rejections came in, I used them to rewrite my query letter again. I sent off to a new list. I finished the second novel, polished it, set it aside, started on the third. I got more bites, even some requests for fulls, and from those rejections I rewrote my query letter again. I sent out. I finished the third book in the trilogy. I got bites, sent out fulls, got rejections. I rewrote the query letter again, sent it out. Started a completely new project.
When I finished that new project, I knew immediately that I had a much stronger book on my hands. I stopped querying the first one and focused on polishing this one. I sent it off to a very nice woman who took time from her own deadlines to read it through and give detailed notes, which made it even stronger. I wrote a query letter. Then I sat down and scratched through most of it and wrote another seven before I found one I liked better. I sent off. And I started working on a new project. This time, I started getting bites off the first round of queries. They still became rejections, but I’d written a better query letter. I was still researching agents constantly. I was following blogs, following on Twitter, soaking up every bit of advice I could find and filtering through to find what was applicable to me.
I finished that project, set it aside because it needed to never be seen by publishing professionals, and started a new one as I continued sending out batches of queries. This new project terrified me. It was hard- harder than anything I’d ever tried before- and it consumed my thoughts. I fell asleep with words and images floating through my mind and woke up several times through the nights to scratch out thoughts on the notebook next to my bed, then tried to decipher them in the morning. I wrote them down, but what I neglected to do was turn on a light or even put on my glasses. I worked on that book whenever I could, even when I was home amidst the welter of distractions that keep me from working there on a regular basis. When I finished it, I couldn’t even look at it- the words were too much in my mind, too close to let me see what I was actually working with. So I sent off another round of queries on that fourth novel.
And after another round of bites and rejections came in, I was able to go back and look at that sixth one, the one that scared and consumed me, and start editing. Start polishing and tweaking and finding the places that needed to be much smoother. And when I’d polished as much as I could, I re-read the fourth project. Then I re-read the sixth project. I still loved the fourth one, the one I’d been querying for months. I still thought it was a strong story, with strong characters. But the sixth one was stronger. Unlike anything I’d ever written, yes, but stronger. So I set the fourth one aside, with the promise that I would come back to it when I could, and started writing letters for the sixth one. I spent over a month writing letters before I found one I thought would work. And I sent out the first batch.
And started researching a new project.
I got more bites. I got some feedback on the rejections that seemed very promising. I kept working on researching the new project. I got more bites, more rejections, send out more queries.
Just over a month ago, I signed with an agent. We’ve done a round of revisions. Three days ago, I started writing the Shiny New Project.
And I would never have come to this point if I hadn’t made the decision to making writing, rather than theatre, my focus. If I hadn’t made that scary, difficult decision to set one dream to rest, I would never have seen this older, more dearly held dream come as far as it has, with the potential to go beyond what I’ve dared to imagine.
That was my turning point.
It was a hard decision. It was a painful decision. But even then, it felt like the right decision. Now, looking back, I know it was also a good one.
Until next time~