I started writing in high school. Short stories, mostly, but only because I couldn't figure out how to make them longer. I vividly remember having these big, bold ideas for stories. Bleak dystopias set on asteroid mining prisons, that sort of thing. I'd start writing them, but then three pages later I'd have reached the end.
I couldn't understand where my story went.
I could not figure out how real writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury nursed a story along not for three pages, but three hundred. Eventually I decided it must be a gift you're either born with, or aren't. And as the evidence suggested I wasn't, I gave up and didn't write anything for about 20 years.
Nothing creative, anyway. In the meantime, I went to college, got a degree in technical writing, and made a career out of writing documentation for software developers. (I still do that too, so if you happen to need any technical writing or editing, please contact me.)
Then in 2005, someone talked me into trying National Novel Writing Month. I went into it with no high expectations. But it turned out to be a wild, exhilarating ride, and I finished the month a 100,000 word first draft of a fantasy novel that miraculously formatted out to about 300 pages.
I was hooked. I have no idea how those two fallow decades helped me bridge the chasm from three pages to three hundred. But I do know that taking one more go at what I'd always failed at before changed the course of my life.
Since then, I haven't looked back and I haven't stopped writing. I have completed NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, with twelve manuscripts under my belt. Three of my books have made their way into print, and several more are in various intermediate stages on that journey.
I've been asked how I came to be a developmental editor. Did I study that in college? Did I take a certificate course somewhere? Did I study at the knee of a master?
No. The truth is, I got into this business because people kept telling me I was good at it. That, and the Great Recession of 2008.
After writing that first novel in November of 2005, I started wondering whether it was any good. Friends and co-workers said they liked it, but I knew anything they told me was quite likely to be colored by bias or politeness.
In search of unbiased feedback, I ended up trading critiques with other writers online. I was looking for pointed, helpful, specific feedback that would actually help me improve my work, so that's the kind of feedback I strove to give other writers. I'd read their chapters very carefully, think hard about the parts that didn't seem quite right so I could explain what felt not-right to me and offer suggestions for how they could fix it.
Time and again, people would respond to my critiques by saying how much they appreciated the feedback and how helpful it was. Now and again, people would even respond to my feedback by saying "wow, that was so great, you should charge money for that!" So when the recession came and the company I was at laid off half the work force, the path was obvious.
I started doing it purely for the income. I have a wife and kids and a mortgage. Yet, while I still need the money, I continue editing now for a different reason.
I do it for the sake of those 20 years I spent not writing because I thought I sucked at it. This journey of learning how to write and edit novels has taught me worlds about how to write. More than that, it has taught me worlds about how narrative works.
Narrative is an art. But it is also a science, one I have dedicated more than a decade to studying. I've learned a lot. But in everything I've learned, in every trick about strong verbs or writing realistic dialogue or micro-pacing, one thing has remained true: every bit of it can be taught. None of it is any kind of gift you have to be born with.
Sometimes I wonder where I would be if I'd had just one teacher in high school or college who understood that, and who understood the art and science of narrative well enough to teach me. Where might I be if I had 20 more years retroactively added to my writing career?
I can't get those 20 years back. But I can stop other people from erroneously deciding they don't have the gift. There is no gift. It's a skill like any other, that can be learned and can be taught. Yes, I edit for the money. But I also edit to help other people persevere where I did not.
I never set out with a plan to be a literary writer or a fantasy writer or a series writer or anything like that. There is much to be said for having a plan. And if you truly want to make a go of it as a professional spinner-of-yarns, I would encourage you to think about your plan. People with a plan seem to do better.
Lacking a plan has its up-side too, though. Being unfettered by any notions of what I "should" be writing to make myself more marketable, I have instead simply written whatever story idea captivates me. Thus I've discovered my path through the stories I've written.
The more I write, the more I gravitate towards common themes: history, children's lit, and strong female protagonists.
I can't say I paid much attention to history in school, but now I find myself fascinated by earlier times. I quite enjoy learning how people lived in other times and places. How they did things. I love learning the forgotten ways of the world. How to make cheese and bread. How hides were tanned into leather once upon a time. How wood was worked into useful forms in the days before power tools. How books were bound in Gutenberg's day.
So more often than not I find myself writing in historical time periods. Even my contemporary works usually have some hook back into the past. I am particularly drawn to the middle decades of the nineteenth century: the drama of westward expansion, the grief and hardships of homesteading and of trekking the Oregon Trail. The dangers of the Pony Express, and the scoundrels who lined their pockets while forging a railroad from Missouri to California. The horror of the Civil War and the ruin it wrought on blacks and whites alike, in different but ample measure.
It's all fascinating, and writing books set in those times gives me an excuse to dive deep into the details of some specific time and the specific people of whatever place constitutes a story's setting.
I wrote my first kids' book as a gift for the daughter of a friend, and much as with my first novel-writing experience, I was hooked.
I love writing for kids. Part of it is that I have two of them and want so much for my children to have good books to read. Part of it is that I loved reading as a child--I loved the escapism of it, and the ability to step into someone else's world for a little while--and want to give that beautiful experience to others.
But part of it is also that not everything being published for children is the best and the brightest. Some of it, frankly, is crap and I know I can do better. It irritates me endlessly to start reading a new book to my kids at bedtime, only to discover that it's hack writing and even hackier storytelling. Something pumped out to make a buck rather than to enrich a child's life.
Kids deserve better. Children's lit should not be held to some lesser standard than writing for the Pulitzer Prize just because the audience is kids and they won't know any better. They won't--how can they? They don't have the experience--but that's a poor excuse for serving them garbage and calling it caviar.
Precisely because they are in their formative years, kids deserve the absolute best writing and the best, most honest storytelling we are capable of. What we give them is what they will view as normal. Thus, we owe them the best in exactly the same way we owe them the best food, the best medical care, the best of everything we can provide. That's what I strive for in every story I write.
I never get there. No story is perfect, and every one of mine has things I could have done better. But not for lack of trying. With each novel, I strive to come a little closer to that goal. I may never reach it, but I hope that someday I'll at least be able to see it from there.
Strong Female Protagonists:
This one is easy: I have a daughter. And when a man has a daughter--if he is any kind of a proper man at all--he will see the world differently. Things he let slide in the past, he will no longer. Things he turned a blind eye to will now glare spot-lit in his vision. The problems our society has with women, lying in wait around the corners of birthdays, loom large.
As one man of no great means in this world, there is little I can do about most of those problems. I can't do much about workplace equality since I don't employ anybody. I can't make the world's obnoxious wolf-whistlers change their behavior. I can't increase the number of real-world role models for girls in the science and tech industries.
But I can do something about what kinds of people are portrayed as capable, pro-active captains of their own destinies within the world of literature. I can write stories in which girls aren't just set dressing, aren't just the prize for the boy when he learns how to stop being a jackass. I can at least write stories in which the girls are complex, capable, pro-active people, with their full share of goals and challenges in life, who rise to meet them.
I won't change the whole publishing industry on my own. But I can do my part, and I can at least make sure that my daughter grows up knowing that her daddy absolutely believes she can do anything she sets her mind to.
Why I Write
The common thread in those themes of what I write, reveals why I write.
I write because writing is empathy.
I firmly believe that writing is a profoundly empathetic act. To write a novel full of characters who leap off the page like living, breathing people, requires that you become those people. At least for a little while, within the confines of your skull, you are them.
That sounds like some glib line, but I mean it almost literally. Whether heroine or villain, for that character to seem real to the reader, that character must behave in a realistic way. That character must behave like a person with their own set of goals, beliefs, fears, resources, and all the rest, just like a real person.
For the character to behave that way, you must understand that character as a person, from the inside out. If they were flesh-and-blood, they could do their own thinking, do what they're going to do, while you write it all down. But they are figments, and the only brain available to do their thinking and feeling and plotting and scheming is yours.
I live my little easy mode life, and I write books about other people in other times, because it's the closest I can come to living someone else's life. Writing is the closest I can come to living a wholly different life from mine.
It's empathy, and I don't think anybody can write a truly honest novel if they can't become their characters in that way.
Writers put a lot of ourselves in our novels. But as well, I write because it is a way of bringing other people into me.
Oh. And that fantasy novel? I'll get it out into print one of these days. I have a gorgeous cover just waiting for it and everything...