One Late-Start Author’s Journey

Well, Ryan Boudinot’s piece in The Stranger continues to prompt discussion, which I suppose means that it’s doing its job. And my own assertion that there’s nothing impeding authors who don’t take writing seriously as teenagers from succeeding is, shall we say, not meeting with universal acceptance. 

Alas, most of the writers who have self-identified to me as people who didn’t take writing seriously did so privately, so I do not feel comfortable outing them. However, what I can do is ask late-start writers to share their journey to becoming writers so we can all assess if the cases that have already been identified (Rowling, Pollack, and Boudinot’s own named exception of Haruki Murakami) are the exceptions that prove the rule, or if there are enough contrary cases that we can say that it is common enough to disprove the assertion that writers who “make it” took writing seriously in their teens.

But, unlike Boudinot, I’d like to start by getting the semantics standardized for the purposes of discussion:

I said before and I’ll say again, I’d be surprised if very many authors would define themselves as having “made it.” So let’s go this route. Are you enjoying enough success that someone else looks up to you as someone who “made it”?

I am a very low-output short storyist. I’ve published 1-3 stories per year in paying, edited markets since 2010 (I do not count self-publication as “making it” without significant income being derived from it, nor do I count non-paying publications). I, personally, do not think of myself as someone who has “made it,” but rather as a revenue-positive hobbyist. So as I share my story, know where I fall in the spectrum for assessment purposes. But I am someone who is farther down the road of “making it” than the majority of my MFA class, and so I may as well do as I’m asking you to do and share my story.

Also, let’s define what it means to take writing seriously as a teenager.

The definition I’ve been operating under is that someone who takes writing seriously is someone who actively wants to be a writer, and puts effort into making that occur. So someone who is trying to learn how to be a writer and writes is taking it seriously. Someone who thinks, “It would be nice to be a writer so I could live that movie star lifestyle” probably isn’t.

Others are suggesting that someone who hasn’t seriously considered being a writer but who nonetheless reads voraciously and is therefore unconsciously building the neural pathways that will later be used in their writing should also be considered as taking writing seriously. I think that counts as taking reading seriously, but I will warrant that this might fit Boudinot’s unspecified definition, so if you’re in this camp, please identify yourself as such.

If I’m understanding Nick Mamatas correctly, he thinks that those who would have liked to have read voraciously but did not because they did not have access to books or were disheartened by the selection available to them should also be considered among the voracious readers. I’ll accept that this position also merits further consideration, so please tell us if this describes you.

It’s also possible to argue that other forms of media, such as television, movies, comic books, video games, and so forth are closely related enough to prose literature that taking those seriously should count as taking writing seriously (because, after all, these things were written by someone, most often a professional writer), and so we should identify anyone who falls into this category, even if they, as teenagers, had no interest in books or in writing.

Which leaves us with a final category, which is the teenager who really paid no attention to narrative media at all and never seriously thought about writing. My instinct is that this category is probably rare, even among non-writers, but I’d love to hear from these folks, too.

So, that established, here’s my story.

I’m an example of a late-start writer (first professional prose fiction publication at age 38) who took writing seriously as a teenager.

I’d say my journey began in sixth grade, when a friend of mine put a copy of Sonni Cooper’s Black Fire in my hands. Before that, I’d been a YA reader, particularly fond of the Bruno and Boots booksBlack Fire was my first adult novel, and I wanted to read it because, well, Star Trek! And it starts with an explosion! What self-respecting sixth grader can turn that down? So, despite the fact that it was actually above my reading level, I worked my way through it. And then I started looking for other Star Trek novels.

I started writing on my own (i.e., not for a school assignment) shortly thereafter. You guessed it, Star Trek fan fiction. I was off on a quest to get my own tie-in novel starring a teenaged Vulcan with a name curiously similar to my own published. My first great literary disappointment came when I discovered that Pocket Books was no longer accepting unsolicited Star Trek manuscripts, probably because of exactly the sort of novel I was writing.

By the time I was in high school, I was routinely hashing out story outlines with my best friend, in which my Mary Sue and her Mary Sue teamed up to save both Captain Kirk and Captain Power. Waldenbooks fed my need for Star Trek novels and even introduced me to some other writers, like Frank Herbert (who I found to be a slog in high school), Piers Anthony (I was quite fond of the Incarnations of Immortality series), Anne McCaffrey (Killashandra, not Pern, thankyouverymuch), and, belatedly, even Tolkien.

I’m not sure any more how I discovered Asimov’s, but it was probably through Waldenbooks’ customer-loyalty book club. I think I first subscribed around 1987. I discovered Aboriginal not long thereafter, and became a subscriber there, too. These are the magazines that introduced me to short fiction.

And poor Gardner Dozois got inundated with my early attempts at fiction.

As did Algis Budrys at the Writers of the Future Contest.

I decided I needed to actually learn to write when I was about 16, and I signed up for a correspondence course through Writer’s Digest. They paired me up with a fine but underperforming mystery writer by the name of Mary Kittredge, who was incredibly patient with an energetic teenager who thought he was God’s gift to science fiction. (Incidentally, if you like a good cozy and you ever come across one of Kittredge’s Charlotte Kent mysteries used, definitely pick it up. They remain good reads to this day. She went on to find more commercial success under a different pen name, but it’s not my place to associate the two names).

By this time, however, my reading was beginning to taper off. I would read maybe one story per issue of each of the magazines I received — generally looking for the one by an author I knew I liked and skipping the others. I stopped buying novels entirely around 1989. By the time I started college and money was tight I gave up the subscriptions altogether.

But I kept submitting. Writers of the Future got an entry from me every quarter like clockwork.

Eventually, and I still don’t know how exactly this happened, I was invited to participate in the Writers of the Future workshop in Los Angeles, along with a large number of other people who had not placed in the contest. I don’t know how they determined who to invite — I’m sure it was at least partly geographic since I was living in Los Angeles at the time — but I had the opportunity to learn with Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton. And let me tell you, I learned a lot from those two.

But by this point, even though I had matured to the point where I could write like an adult, I had completely stopped reading anything that wasn’t required for school (and even the required reading I often skipped). Though I’m sure my post-WOTF workshop stories were far, far better than anything I’d written before, they still went nowhere. They were simply out of touch with what people were publishing.

I eventually just gave up on prose fiction altogether.

But, I was a competent writer, in that I could string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, using generally clean grammar, and I could make a reader understand what I was trying to say. So as I moved into the workforce, the task of writing (catalogues, customer information, website content, and eventually science education materials) often fell to me. I never stopped writing. I simply stopped writing prose fiction.

Jumping back in time, there’s a parallel thread I didn’t mention before, which is that in 1988 I also discovered Syd Field’s The Screenwriter’s Workbook, which got me also fooling around with screenwriting. In college, I was someplace where I could actually get scripts produced (as student projects), and I even got to take a writing class with animation legend Ernest Pintoff. Hollywood success was never forthcoming, but I found myself writing for non-broadcast educational videos almost by accident in my one day job. I have also had a screenplay produced, but the company folded before the movie was finished. So the writing muscles stayed lubricated, even though I’d lost all interest in prose fiction.

My journey back to prose fiction started 10 years ago, when my husband took a job in Fresno. My own job was going to end eventually (I’d been hired on to a specific NASA mission which had a limited life expectancy). That meant I either needed to make it in Hollywood, or give up on Hollywood and move to Fresno with my husband. Well, it was becoming increasingly clear that the latter was going to be my only option, which meant figuring out what I was going to do with my life in Fresno.

Meanwhile, this was in 2007, I was struggling to make one of my screenplays work when I had a blinding realization what the problem was: The story wasn’t appropriate for a screenplay and it really needed to be a novel. So, despite not having even thought about writing a novel in almost 20 years, I set about trying to write prose fiction all over again.

Now, for the record, the results of that “first” attempt at novel writing… well, let’s just say that my husband has firm instructions to blank my hard drive and use the hard copy as tinder for the fireplace should I die suddenly. I promise you, it will never see the light of day with my name on it. Yes, it’s that bad. But it got me started again.

And I started reading again. After a long hiatus, I started picking up magazines to see what the current marketplace looked like, and actually giving every story in them at least a once-over. I started making it a point to check out the books that were up for the major awards.

I also found that once I was writing prose again, other ideas flowed. “Man of Water,” which just came out last December, got started as an idea that was distracting me from that novel. It’s been rewritten at least a half dozen times since 2007, but I still think of it as my first short story, even though it came out more than 4 years after my first short story, and was far from my first story if you consider the, what, probably two dozen or so stories I must have written as a teenager.

According to my records, I made 30 submissions of 5 short stories in 2007, 2008, and 2009 before getting distracted by the fact that my job had, in fact, finally ended, necessitating getting the house in Pasadena ready to sell, selling it, actually joining my husband in Fresno, and then making the falling-down house he had bought up here habitable. On February 25, 2010, I declared the drama over, dusted off my previous five stories and one brand new one, and started submitting again. “Too Close for Comfort” was one of those submissions, and Cosmos Magazine bought it.

So that’s my story, over two decades’ worth. I’m not sure where in it you would say I became a writer, but I can say I took writing seriously as a teenager.

I also think I’m a writer whose primary weakness is that he didn’t take reading seriously enough. Learn from my mistake.

So what’s your story? Did you take writing seriously as a teenager? And where are you now on that hard-to-define spectrum of “making it”? Please share.


2 thoughts on “One Late-Start Author’s Journey

  1. Although I read voraciously all my life, and made vague comments that I should “write a book one day”, I did not take writing even the least bit seriously until I was 29 years old. My first story was published a little over three years later.

    I wrote about this in more detail at that time, but I was essentially inspired by “Dreamsongs” by GRRM. That book literally changed my life.

    It’s kind of funny, actually. Mr. Martin was (is) my favorite author, and when I read his very early works my first thought was, “That’s not better than anything I could have written.” I suppose a lot of people say a lot of things like that, but for me that was it. That’s all it took.

    6 years later and I have a story in a year’s best and another one forthcoming from Analog.

    That’s why it’s so important that we don’t give authors any reason not to write. These things turn on a dime. They did for me.

    There are an infinite number of paths out there and if anyone tells you one of the paths is not valid, they are most likely trying to sell you something (most likely “developmental editing”).