Saturday, June 2, 2012

28 Day Blog Challenge: How I Started Writing

First day of the 28 Day Blog Challenge.  So excited!

Describe your earliest memory of writing. How did your writing habit/process/career develop?

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend.  I'm not entirely sure where she came from or how exactly I came up with her, but her name was Tinky and she was a "tigercat" which apparently meant that she was a tiger who was sometimes also a person.  She had a life that was heavily influenced by some of my favorite movies:  she slayed dragons for treasure, like The Hobbit; she had a bull whip as a weapon, like Indiana Jones; she fought a giant bear like the Fox & The Hound.  When I was young, I used to go out in the backyard, assume her identity and act out all sorts of scenes. 

My very earliest attempts at writing were an attempt to tell Tinky's story.  When I was about five, I wrote and illustrated a little picture book, but it was incomprehensible to anybody but me.  Most of my later attempts were similarly terrible.  It wasn't until after The Lion King was released that I, being a very shrewd 8-year-old, realized that I needed to get a move-on and get my story published before Disney stole any more of my ideas. 

I was also smart enough to realize that, if I was going to do this properly, I needed to approach it systematically.  So I checked some kids books out of the library about writing stories, and set about writing down my own stories.  My parents, feeling bad for me and my dismal handwriting and wanting to encourage my new hobby, bought me a Smith Corona manual typewriter at a flea market for $8. 

I still remember most of those early stories.  They were all very earnest, melodramatic and completely ridiculous.  I've already talked about one of them here, but most were in a similar vein.  I wrote a story once about a woman who bought a gun to keep herself safe while her husband worked the night shift, but then shot and killed her husband when he comes home early from work.  I did one where three kids were home alone during a blackout that left their parents stranded on the subway, and somehow they caught their house on fire and barely survived.  Later on I did a sequel where those same three kids got lost at summer camp and had to rough it in the woods.  One of them got caught in an electric barbed-wire fence.  It was very exciting. 

When I was 10, I decided I'd written enough short stories to try writing the novel, so I set about writing The Tigercat with absolute seriousness.  It came out to 72 single-spaced, typewritten pages and was jam-packed with action.  It told Tinky's entire life, and it ended -- as such a great epic must -- with her death.  I hadn't seen it coming.  I'd never really planned to end the book that way, and as soon as I typed the words I felt this terrible feeling of finality well up inside of me.  

I'll never forget that moment.  It was Spring of 1997.  I was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Antioch, California, with my parents and older brother; my dad and my brother were both working as boilermakers in the nearby power plant.  I stayed on a futon couch in the living room and stayed up late.  I was home-schooled, so it didn't matter what time I went to bed, so I stayed up every night with my dog and my typewriter and VH1 music videos and I wrote my book. 

I was up late enough working on the last chapter of The Tigercat that my brother woke up for work before I'd gone to bed.  I announced to him that I'd finished my book.  He muttered something noncommittal and went to take a shower.  I felt lonelier, in that moment, than I ever had in my entire life. 

I was bitter and snappish all day.  I tried to undo the damage I'd done -- tried to write Tinky back to life -- but it was no good.  It was over.

Once I came out of my haze, I realized something interesting.  I'd always assumed I was a one-book writer.  I'd never had any plans whatsoever of being a career novelist.  But there I was, one book under my belt, and suddenly a wave of inspiration came over me. 

That launched what would be the absolute most productive period of my writing career.  Between 11 and 16, I wrote no fewer than nine novels.  I did a trilogy about kids with superpowers who fought dragons.  I did one about a plane that crashed in rural Colorado and all of the surviving passengers had to struggle to survive.  And then I started writing these "issue books." 

Let me take a moment to pause here and point out how inherently ridiculous a socially-isolated home-schooled 12-year-old writing books about troubled teens actually is. 

Nevertheless, I had a whole series planned out.  Each book would take place in a fictional town and take place at a single high school, called Macbeth High, and all of the characters would play cameo roles in each other's stories.  One book was about cutting.  Another one was about a teenage alcoholic.  One was about a teenage heroin addict who dies of AIDS.  I did all of the research for that one by reading D.A.R.E. books. 

Anyway.  I sent out a few query letters at this point in my career.  My very first query letter landed me a partial request from an editor at Atheneum books.  I suspect it's because I said in the letter that I was 12 and the editor may have been so impressed by the fact that a 12-year-old was actually writing a professional-ish query letter that she had to request the manuscript just to make sure I wasn't a genius savant.  She rejected me very kindly and encouraged me to keep writing. 

An unfortunate thing happened in high school, though.  I started to get super self-conscious about my writing.  My mother admonished me not to let anybody at school read my stories because she suspected the counselor would call me in for an intervention.  She was totally right, of course, but it upset me a lot and it made me nervous about writing at all.  I was also self-conscious of how sucky my stories were.  So I stopped writing for a little while and focused on reading everything I could get my hands on and didn't write anything else until college. 

I worked on-and-off on a Great American Novel the entire time I was in college.  I also wrote several short stories.  I published my first short story -- "Monologue" -- a few weeks after graduation, and I finished the novel during Christmas break of my first (and only) year of graduate school.

That was 2007.  I've finished two more books since then.  I always get depressed when I write the ending, but now I know that so I can prepare a little better. 

And, wow!  That was really long.  If you made it that far, you deserve a cookie.  *offers cookies*

If you're still awake after all that, you should tell me a story about YOUR childhood writing experiences in the comments.  I genuinely want to know!


  1. I love reading everyone's first posts. This is going to be an amazing month.

    1. Thank you :) I'm loving the sense of community already!

  2. Great post! Where's my cookie?
    At the same age you were writing stories I was simply imagining them. See my first post for the author blog challenge here:
    Ahem... did I mention I was Sailor Sun in my childhood mind? No? Oh well... that's a future post.
    But back to this one. Good grief! Good on you for writing a query letter at age 12. I just discovered they existed at almost twice that age. Cheers!
    No seriously though, I want my cookie.

    1. For your toils, here is the world's easiest cookie recipe:
      1 cup peanut butter
      1 cup sugar
      1 egg

      Mix the three ingredients together. You can add a little vanilla if you want, but you don't have to. Once it's thoroughly mixed, roll it up into a ball and bake at 375 until they're golden around the edges. Bam :D

  3. So much to read - so little time - loved it.

  4. That was legitimately fascinating.

    1. Aw, shucks. You get a cookie too:
      1 cup butter
      1/2 cup sugar
      2 cups flour

      Mix up the three ingredients into a soft, sticky dough. Chill it for several hours or until it's firm-ish, then cut into pieces and drop on a greased cookie sheet. 350 or until the cookies puff up and get brown around the edges. I usually sprinkle my dough with cinnamon and sugar before baking.

  5. Laughed out loud and read portions to my husband! This was tremendous. I've never killed of a favorite character, but I can empathize with the pain. Thanks for sharing!!

  6. I'm not sure I trust you. Those folks from the dark side offer cookies as well...

    I loved this! I'm looking forward to more!