How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

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I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

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Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected by a Publisher (Even When You Got the Basics Right)

Your novel manuscript is formatted correctly. It doesn’t contain a single typo (okay, maybe one). It’s a coherent, interesting story that’s appropriate for the age range and interests of your intended audience. And you submitted it to a publisher or imprint based on detailed research that targeted this publisher/imprint as the ideal place for a book like yours. You even spelled the editor’s name right.

….And you’re still staring at a rejection.

Often, an editor who rejects an otherwise publishable and appropriate novel will tell you why they’ve kicked it to the curb. Whether or not you’re looking at this feedback, here are some “beyond the basics” reasons your novel may have been rejected:

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1.  It’s too long (or too short).

Every genre has a conventional word count. This isn’t The Man trying to keep you down; it’s a function of (a) the audience’s expectations (and attention span), (b) the conventions of certain genres, and (c) printing costs.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be a YA novel and still clock in north of 250,000 words because, by the time it came out, the publisher knew that Harry Potter fans would read a novel of any length and pay just about anything to get it. If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had been that long, it’d still be sitting in Rowling’s unheated flat: Sorcerer’s Stone contains about 76,000 words, a respectable length for a YA novel.

Know the conventions for novel lengths in your genre and stick to them – at least until you’re an international household name.

2. It’s too similar to another book that’s already on the market (which may or may not have come from this publisher).

About 350,000 books are published in the United States each year. While the Big Five account for most of those, scores of smaller presses put out books too – as do intrepid self-publishers.

Given that half of U.S. adults read fewer than five books a year, every book is broadly in competition with every other. The “real” competition, however, is between books in particular genres or on particular subjects – which means that small presses in particular are keenly aware of which books like your books have been published in the past five years, which are currently “frontlisted” in other publishers’ catalogs, and which are the subject of the most aggressive marketing campaigns.

Very few publishers will publish a book that is substantially similar to another book that’s already out there, whether or not they were the press to publish the first book. Marketing books is already a tough game: If your book is “just like [insert other book here],” that tough game becomes one neither you nor your publisher can win.

3. The book is great, but its author is a pill.

You don’t just need to find the right publisher. You also need to find the right editor.

If you’re going to harass your editor every other week about the status of your book, demand proprietary details as to the publishing process, or nitpick every detail of the contract, you need an editor with the patience to deal with that. Most editors do not have that patience.

It’s not always easy to know which questions are and are not reasonable to ask, especially if you’re new to book publishing. When in doubt, hedge the question: “I don’t know if this is a reasonable question, but….” Admitting your limits rather than demanding answers may (may) improve your editor’s patience, especially if you really are new to publishing.

Like your doctor, lawyer, or babysitter, your editor needs to be someone you can communicate with and trust. Pay attention to how your editor communicates. If you’re getting terse answers, no answers, or being told to sit down, your editor might be ready to cut you loose – or they might be so busy and/or bad at communicating that your best course of action is to choose another publisher.


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Three Ways to Become A Writer

Disclaimer: Despite having become a writer, I’m still not sure I know how to become a writer.

That said, here’s the stuff I did that, in hindsight, was the most helpful in getting me to the point where my first book is a Real Thing That Exists in the World, my second book is in editing, and I have lost count of the number of non-book things I have published and where I have published them.

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1. Read obsessively.

Forget reading like it’s your job: Read like it’s the only thing standing between you and the gaping abyss of death. Read like your brain needs words and not oxygen molecules to survive. Read in bed. Read on the toilet. Read in the shower. Read while walking the dog. Read while standing in line at the grocery store.

It matters what you read…kind of. An understanding of novel structure and character development, for instance, is hard to get from Washington Post articles or the back of shampoo bottles. So if you want to write in a particular genre, keep a good mix of that genre in your reading.

But read other things too. Restricting yourself to one type of reading material will burn you out and limit your vision. Read ALL THE THINGS. You’d be amazed at how often my reading of technical articles on blockchain management, treatises on late 17th-century sailing, or academic tomes featuring modernist interpretations of child psychology appear in my neuroqueer sci-fi.

2. Write even when you’re not supposed to be writing.

First: write when you’re supposed to be writing. Pick a time every day you will sit down with your writing tools of choice, and then BE THERE ON TIME READY TO WORK. Hiss angrily and throw things at anyone who tries to distract you. Be there even if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas. Be there especially if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas.

But: also write even when you’re not supposed to be writing. Taking a class where the lecturer repeats things you’ve already learned? Write instead of taking notes. Boring meeting? Write. Have six loads of laundry to fold? Write. Kids have a recital or soccer game? Write. (Okay, this one might be kind of mean. Don’t be mean to your kids.)

Over the course of my tenth-grade history class alone, I wrote over 300 pages of fiction. It’s all terrible fan fiction and I will never let anyone read it, but I wrote it. And it taught me a lot about how to write.

3. Practice courage.

Courage isn’t a character stat. It’s not an inherent quality that some people are born with “enough” of and the rest of us are doomed to deficiency in.

Courage is an act. Courage is what you are doing when you say, “Hey, I’m scared of this thing, but accomplishing X by doing the thing is more important to me than my fear,” and then you pursue the more important thing.

I didn’t link this one to writing until I started my first novel. But by that time, I’d been practicing courage for years as a figure skater, a colorguard performer, a litigation attorney, and a teacher. I’m still scared every time I submit a piece of writing to an editor, even if that piece was specifically commissioned and I know they won’t reject it. I submit it because getting the work out there is more important to me than indulging my fear of criticism.

There are lots of ways to practice courage, and courage is an essential skill. You can write for years (I did), but putting your work out there is what makes you A Writer.


4. Drink a lot of coffee. Buy it for friends. Friends like me.

7 Questions You Need to Ask About Plot

So you want to write a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a more different kind of play. Or a short story. Or a poem that is also a story but also it’s a poem.

You need a plot.

No good stories exist without plot. Our lives don’t exist without plot. Plot is the evolutionary byproduct of being three-dimensional beings capable of experiencing a four-dimensional universe. You’re plot. I’m plot. Everything you ever experienced is plot.

Unfortunately, not every plot we experience in the ordinary course of living makes a good story. You might love the memory of lying on a beach, drinking mai tais and caring about absolutely nothing, but nobody wants to read that book.

Here are seven questions you need to ask about your plot.

7 QuestionsYou Need To AskAbout PLOT

1. What does each character want?

Characters can want more than one thing. They can want conflicting things. They can even believe they want one thing, but act from an unconscious desire to really get another thing. But if a character wants nothing, strike them from the story. They don’t matter. They may as well not exist.

What your characters want is going to drive the plot. It’s going to be the thing that makes them react in certain ways to other characters and obstacles. And it’s going to matter at the climax. (More on this in a moment.)

So know what each character wants more than anything. Make a spreadsheet. Write it on your bedroom walls. But be clear on it.

2. How do I stop my main character from getting what they want?

Take a look at your protagonist. What do they want? Now, how can other elements in the story (outside events, other characters’ wants, etc.) stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it?

3. How will my main character overcome those obstacles?

Once you have the first two problems in place, start looking for ways the protagonist can address them. Include both positive, helpful options (making friends with another character! Learning a thing! Asking for directions!) and counterproductive ones (pretending not to feel a thing! Drinking too much! Punching someone!).

4. What problems do the character’s choice of “overcoming” tactic create?

A good rule of thumb is that each problem the protagonist solves should create two new problems. And the best problems are those that run right up against the protagonist’s desires, beliefs, or sense of self.

This is where maladaptive, jury-rigged, or “good enough” solutions to problems—the kind that depend on inaccurate information or assumptions from the protagonist—become very useful (and also very interesting). The solution is good enough for now, but sooner or later, it won’t be.

5. Does the story end with the protagonist getting what they want, or nah?

If it does, the story can broadly be classified (in the ancient Greek sense) as a “comedy.” If it doesn’t, it’s a “tragedy.”

a. If yes, what realization does the protagonist have that allows them to get what they want? This change needs to come from within the protagonist: that they are strong enough, that the ordinary-looking sword is actually the magical McGuffin Blade, or that the real treasure was the friends they made along the way.

b. If nah, what challenge proves too formidable for the protagonist to defeat or divert? Turns out that you die if you drink poison. Thanks for the heads-up, Romeo/Gertrude/Claudius/Hamlet.

6. What kind of person does the protagonist become as a result of #5?

Specifically, what kind of person does the protagonist become that they weren’t (or didn’t realize they were) when the story began? What changed?

If your character doesn’t seem to change much or you can’t figure out how they change, your character isn’t developed enough yet. Go back to question #1. Do not make us read Twilight again.

7. I get all this, but the real treasure is the friends we make along the way, right?

No.

Maybe?

I’m a writer. What do I know about humans?


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