Getting there from here … or here from there … or something

Over on fangs_fur_fey, folks have been sharing their “how I became a writer” stories. I found this kind of challenging, because there’s really been no one moment when I “became” a writer (though perhaps the day I got my first rejection slip–months after I sold my first story–shrugged, and got back to writing comes closest), but …

… this is what I posted there:

As I’ve been reading everyone else’s posts about how they got here, I find myself thinking about how I’m now sure, exactly, where “here” actually is. There’ve been several points throughout my career when I’ve thought, okay, I’m a real writer now–only to find that I tend to regularly adjust my definition of real to be “one step beyond wherever I am right now.” A dangerous habit, that. 🙂

I’ve been filling notebooks with half-finished stories (in the beginning, I was really bad at finishing things) since junior high school. But when I graduated from college and found myself living alone in St. Louis with no obligations outside of my 9-5 day job, I realized there was never going to be a better time to get serious about my writing than right then. So I took the last of my student loan money, bought myself a computer, and started forcing myself to write something–even if it was only a sentence or two–every single night.

Along the way, I was reading one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s multi-author Darkover anthologies–I’d devoured all her Darkover books in college–and thought that hey, maybe my writing was up to the level of at least some of them. Didn’t think I really stood a chance–I knew no one who wrote seriously, after all–but I sent for guidelines and started working on a Darkover story. I didn’t know what fanfic was back then, but many of the stories in those notebooks were fanfic, so making one of my first serious attempts at writing a Darkover story made sense to me.

Took me six months to get that story to a point where I (and lnhammer, who gave me many many many useful critiques during that time) was happy with it and willing to send it out.

I spent the next three months writing nothing and going home from work on my lunch hour to check my mail. 🙂

At the end of three months, I found an envelope in my mailbox. In the envelope was a contract to publish my story in the anthology Leroni of Darkover. I had to read the thing over a few times, just to make sure I understood right–or maybe that was because it’s hard to read something through when your hands are shaking.

For a few moments, I felt very much like a real writer. But then within an hour or two I realized something–I no longer had anything out in the mail. I didn’t even have anything else ready to send out.

So I got back to work. When I sold my second story, and proved the first wasn’t a fluke, then I’d be a real writer.

Selling my second story took longer than selling the first. The ‘net was still largely a text-only, usenet-and-gopher based affair then, but I joined an online service, GEnie, which had a community for science fiction writers. Through that and through a local science fiction convention, I met the members of a local critique group, the Alternate Historians, and was invited to join.

What makes me laugh now is, I actually hesitated for a moment. I’d already sold a story of my own–did I really need a critique group? But, well, the writers in this group had sold multiple stories (something I was still struggling to do), and one had even sold a novel. (She was trying to sell a second book, too, but back then no one was quite sure how to market this half-horror half-mystery story about a vampire hunter and a vampire who ran a nightclub …) It occurred to me that possibly, I had some things to learn here–and besides, I really like the folks in the group a lot (and consider them friends to this day).

Anyway, yeah. I discovered I had more than a few things to learn, and I spent the next two years learning them–learning as much as any MFA program could teach me. Along the way I began selling my short fiction, first to a series of anthologies Mike Resnick was editing at the time, then to other places as well.

I should have felt like a real writer when I sold my second story, but somehow I didn’t. I figured I needed to sell five or six–but that didn’t do it, either.

After two years I left St. Louis and moved to Tucson. My only real regret was leaving my critique group behind. In two years, I’d gone from wondering whether I needed a critique group to wondering whether I’d still be able to write without one. But over time, I found other critiquers and other groups, and learned things from then as well–including that there would probably always, always be something new for me to learn.

When I moved to Tucson, I was writing mostly for adults. But soon after I sold to a few antholgies for kids, as well, including a series of anthologies Bruce Coville was editing. I began to realize that I loved writing for kids and teens, that my writing voice was suited to it, and that I gravitated toward coming of age stories anyway. Slowly I began thinking of myself more and more as a children’s and YA writer, and less and less as an adult one. By the time I attended Jane Yolen’s master class at the Centrum workshop in 1997 (where I found that children’s writers were way more willing than adult writers to splash through puddles with me), I knew this was where I belonged.

But backing up, before I attended that workshop … several of the Bruce Coville anthologies were edited by a book packager, General Licensing Company. One day, I was on the phone with GLC’s in-house editor, Lisa Meltzer, so I asked her: are you working on any series you need writers for? It turned out she was, and I sent her some writing samples, we talked a bit more, and eventually I signed a contract to write three “Ghost Horse” books. It was work for hire, meaning I didn’t own the rights, but it sounded like fun, and I figured having firm deadlines would be a great way to learn how to write a novel.

It was. And seeing my name on a book cover was a huge thrill. Seeing the books on the shelves was even more of one.

Briefly, I felt like I must be a real writer–until I decided that no, I’d be a real writer when sold a book that wasn’t work for hire. Surely that would happen soon, though. I’d learned so much writing the Ghost Horse books. So I signed on with an agent, and I started writing proposals for more middle grade and young adult novels. When I got tired of writing proposals, I finished a couple instead. And then …

Seven years passed.

During those years I kept selling short fiction, but not novels. There were all sorts of reasons for this: the fact that I probably wasn’t at the right stage to sell on proposal yet; the fact that I gave some time to a work for hire project that fell apart messily; the fact that I gave some time to a work-for-hire project that went splendidly, but was ghost writing and so not credited to me; the fact that my agent, while a nice guy, wasn’t quite right for the sort of things I wrote. Plus, perhaps, the fact that I still had more to learn than I thought, as well as a bit of plain ordinary bad luck.

Eventually my agent and I amicably parted ways, though it took us five or six years to get there. I found myself with several book proposals I no longer had much enthusiasm for; a completed middle grade novel I still believed in that my agent had failed to sell; and a young adult novel that I also believed in that my agent hadn’t been willing to send out at all.

I did some revising and refocusing, and then I began sending out the novel my agent had failed to sell on my own. Within a year, Holiday House made an offer. (This is the only time I’ve had an offer on a book made by phone. After I listened to the message on my answering machine, I literally could not speak. I still have a recording of that message.)

Two years after that–and ten years after Ghost HorseSecret of the Three Treasures was published.

And I sort of did feel like a real writer then, though I told myself I’d feel like more of one when I sold my second book that wasn’t work for hire–that whole “let’s prove it’s not a fluke thing” all over again, though I should have known better by then.

I sent out the young adult book my former agent wasn’t willing to send out for a while, too, then decided it really did need work after all and pulled it from circulation. One day, I’ll revise it further.

Meanwhile, I was working on another young adult novel. I’d begun it way back when I lived in St. Louis, actually, and workshopped the opening at the Centrum workshop, too. I loved the opening, and had no idea where to go from there. Every couple of years I would pull the manuscript out, poke at it a bit, and realize I still didn’t know what to do with it. I suspected, each time I looked at it, that I simply didn’t have the skill to do it justice yet. I wanted to do it justice, so I kept waiting and writing other things and working on becoming a better writer.

Around the time I left my agent, I decided it was time to write that book at last. (It was a book I’d always suspected said agent, who didn’t like “depressing” books, would not like–one of the reasons we really weren’t a good match for each other.) It was a hard book to write, and it took me a couple years to do so, not even counting the ten years I’d already been thinking about it. But it was worth it, to have that story told at last.

When I was done, I decided to look for an agent again. I eventually signed with my current agent, who then sold Bones of Faerie to Random House. It will be out in early 2009.

Whether I’ll feel like a real writer when it does … I’ll have to get back to you on that. 🙂

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