The Road Behind Me

This past June, I published my first novel. It was my NaNoWriMo novel for 2012. It was not my first NaNo win (I’m 5/5 now), nor my last. The road to publishing it was long and difficult, and it started *mumble* years ago, when I was a teenager. You see, I’ve been published before this. At the tender age of 16, I submitted a short story – it was actually flash fiction – to a small literary journal, and it was accepted and included. At 17, my brother included one of my poems in his own literary journal. I actually got a fan letter for the flash fiction.

I’ve always been a writer. When I was in 2nd grade, I wrote my first book, for the school district book fair. It was called The Mean Old Man’s Backyard, and featured turkeys largely because that was the only animal I could draw well enough to be recognized. It was six pages long and chronicled a curmudgeonly man deciding he was a curmudgeon and changing that because the turkeys wanted him to. I’m not sure what the moral of the story was, but at least I knew it needed conflict, even if it wasn’t very exciting.

By the time I was at the point of that flash fiction submission, I was pretty impressed with myself and hated English class because it was stupid and I already knew everything. I even wrote a scifi book, and a Salem witch trial-esque play. They both sucked and I knew it, but I wrote them, and I was pretty proud of that in my own incredibly quiet and non-boastful way. (Thankfully, copies of neither still exist.) Then life happened.

I stopped writing anything except college papers. I had a social life. I got…depressed isn’t the right word. I’ve read about depression, and I’ve never experienced that. ‘Unhappy’ is more accurate. I looked to people and gaming to fill the void, but it just didn’t quite do it. I was meh and blah and pseudohappy.

Enter online play-by-post (PbP) gaming. All along, I was playing D&D and Shadowrun and a handful of other gaming systems, but it was all rolling dice and goofing around and chatting and snacking. PbP gaming is writing. It’s collaborative storytelling, where each participant writes the role of one perspective. I was writing again, and it was awesome. Boy, though, did my writing suck. I was so out of practice that I’m now deeply grateful the site I originally started PbP gaming deletes its archives frequently. But that’s not the point.

Because of PbP gaming, which I love doing, I got a ton of practice. Things I never really grasped as a cocky teenage writer crystallized, and I learned to create flawed yet likable characters who can win without being Mary Sue or Marty Stu. I learned about what makes a good combat and what makes a bad sequence of events. I learned how to fall in love with my creations so much I wanted to wound them and watch them suffer and crawl back up from their own self-inflicted wounds. I learned that all conflict is not created equal, and plots need more than just a string of combat encounters to be engaging (in fairness, I already knew some of this, but never thought about it much). And so much more.

And then some jackass I respect and enjoy writing with pointed me at NaNoWriMo. My first time was exciting and wonderful. I decided to do it on October 28th – it starts on November 1st. And I wrote the crap out of that thing in 7 days. It was horrible. Not in the same way that first scifi book was, but still horrible. I learned an interesting lesson I was unprepared for, which was about pacing. Somewhere around 40k words, I was finished and had to come up with something else to shove in to actually get up to 50k. It’s pretty amazing how few words it really takes to tell a story that seems jam-packed with stuff.

It never crossed my mind that I might publish that first one, The Scouts of Tourimrie. Those two early successes were so far in the past, it almost felt like it happened to someone else. In a way, it did, because I was a substantially different person *mumble* years later. Anyway, I set Scouts aside, bought the winner t-shirt, donated to the Office of Letters and Light as thanks for a wild ride, and let it be. My writing brain went back to PbP gaming.

The next year, I was ready. I had an outline, I had characters, I had setting notes, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I finished in 61 hours. That is, on November 3rd at approximately 1pm, I crossed the 50k mark. Having done that, I know it is physically impossible for me to do it any faster, and I haven’t bothered trying in subsequent years. This time, I also set it aside and sent OLL my money. Then I did it again the next year, with less prep and more exuberance.

As I sat there, madly typing away on my shiny new netbook, my (now ex-) husband said to me, “You know, some people actually publish their writing.” Two things went through my mind. One, he’s an asshole. Two, though, was that he was right. Some people do actually publish what they’ve written. There was no way I had any intention of publishing that particular drivel (#3 was really that awful, trust me), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t write something that was worth publishing. That spring, we decided to get a divorce, and that summer, I decided that it was time for me to try publishing. I wrote all the time, I should be able to do this.

There was just one tiny little problem: performance anxiety. I have always had tremendous stagefright. In high school, I was in the choir, and I managed to get solos a couple of times, and every time, I only pulled it off because there were other people standing around me and it was short and singing, which came more naturally to me than most anything else. Whenever it was something more focused on just me, though, I always flubbed it somehow. From tryouts to speeches to presentations of any sort, I couldn’t do it without my hands shaking, my heart beating way too fast, my face burning, and (of course) me screwing it up somehow. I got too nervous for words even just leading an informal meeting of the Supernerd Club at lunchtime. (No, it wasn’t actually called that, but it might as well have been.)

This crushing self-doubt has dogged me all my life. I suspect most people think I’m introverted, but that’s hardly the case. No, I really just have a miniscule ego, terrified of rejection. What I needed was a way to push myself, to get over it at least enough to publish a book, to throw my stuff out there and see if anyone else would like it as much as I do. This led me to what I considered a brilliant idea. Instead of trying to push out something I would be proud of in every way imaginable, I wrote a trashy romance novel and shared it, chapter by chapter, with a dear friend who enjoys this particular genre.

I’d never written explicit sex scenes before, but I’d read what other people wrote, so I knew the basics. I tossed together a very silly plot and some ridiculous characters. The entire point of this novel was to be ludicrous and trashy. If I could share that with someone, then I could share something serious. As it turned out, Gwen enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure she knew it had problems just like I did, but overall, she enjoyed it.

Probably, I will never be able to express exactly how much gratitude I feel for Gwen, just for the fact she told me she liked it. With that behind me, I made a firm commitment to myself: I was going to publish my next NaNo if it killed me. I was going to write it, then I was going to rewrite it, then I was going to edit it, then I was going to publish it. More or less, that’s how it happened. My 4th NaNo took me 6 days to reach 50k. It took about 6 weeks to rewrite and edit it, then it took forever to get a cover and format and blah blah blah, and then I published Dragons In Pieces in June.


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