My Journey to Becoming an Author Part 5: Growth

It is important to remember that when you hit a roadblock that you do not give up. Likewise, it is just as important not to plow against that roadblock until you are burned out. Keep learning. Watch webinars. Go to conferences. Read about your craft. Read about things you want to write. Learn.

While you are doing this, set your manuscript aside. Let it rest. You don’t rest. Keep up the momentum and keep writing. It may never amount to anything, but you at least are moving. As long as you are moving, your dreams are not dead.

That is where I was. I had written a horrible manuscript, don’t get me wrong, it was a good story, but it was not good at the same time.

What I had thought a few months ago would be an easy write, turned out to be hard. You had to tell a story in a limited space and there were so many rules and expectations.

I set my story aside and worked on other stories. I developed my craft and soon there was a stack of stories in my drawer. I was not just writing stories and throwing them in there, I would write them and take them through critique groups until I felt I could do no more with them.

My local SCBWI chapter decided to hold a spring writing retreat. It was going to be a cozy environment at a local lodge in which we would have break out groups and classes, and most importantly, time to write and interact with other writers. Part of the retreat was going to be manuscript review opportunities from some of our published members.

I pulled out my stories from my drawer as I periodically did, and reread them. The last one was that first story I had put in there. I wanted to write this story, but I didn’t know how to. So, I pulled out two other stories and decided to work on them instead.

A couple of nights later (well, early morning) I was lying in bed and thinking as I have a bad habit of doing. That first story popped back into my head. It was strange, but I felt I could fix it, I just had no idea how to.

The next day after work, I came home and pulled out the feedback I had received from the editor and read through them again. There was a lot there, and very little at the same time. I agreed with her on so many things, but the answers weren’t there.

This time, as I reread the story for the umpteenth million time, I heard it. It was a voice. It was not my voice, but that of a character. It was the same voice I had heard while lying in bed. I had spent so much time focusing on the biography, that I had missed the voice.

My prospector was not telling his story, his gold pan was.

I tackled the rewrite and focused on the things I really liked in my original story, but allowed my main character to shift. The story fell onto the page.

It was rough, but it had all the components it needed. It was long, but I knew I could edit that down with illustrator notes.

I took it to my next critique group. Many did not recognize it from the original story it had changed so much. In truth, the story changed very little, but the perspective did.

After some critiques, I polished it up a bit and submitted it for a review during our retreat. I requested Tricia Brown, a local Alaskan author who has written many picture books and worked as an editor.

I had to wait a couple of months until the retreat, so I continued to write while I waited.

As the retreat grew closer, my doubts began to rise. I reread my story and had a few others read it and it was not really as good as I originally thought it was. I wanted to tell this story and hoped a review by a seasoned professional would give me the insight I needed.

By the time the retreat arrived, I almost didn’t want to go. I wanted to avoid the pain. I didn’t want to sit around for a weekend with a piece of work I no longer felt confident in.

Two months ago, I was making a plan to submit this story over the summer, now I wanted to get it back to the safety of the drawer.

My wife and I drove to the retreat and we were given our reviews in a folder. I quickly perused the first page and shoved it deep into my writing bag.

We retired to our cabin and read our reviews. I read my review more slowly. Tricia had liked my story. She had a lot of practical edits, but nothing major. I was searching for things I needed to do to change my story and make it better, and they weren’t there. To be honest, I was starting to think this was a waste of time.

Then my wife asked me, “How many stars did you get?”

I looked at her with what I am sure was my stupid confused face. Stars? What stars?

Newbie.

I went back to the cover page that she was pointing at on her own review.

5 stars…..Wait! What?

My wife didn’t believe me either and took my manuscript. She read though my review far more quickly and was beaming.

I was still confused. How was this story that I had come to not like be 5 stars? And what in the world did that mean?

My wife read off the last page in which Tricia put her personal response on how much she loved the story and the voice and said that she knew a company that would be interested in it.

I met with Tricia later at the retreat and she told me more great things about my story and helped me flesh out some of the rewrite before telling me who I should talk to about getting my book published.

I don’t remember much more from the retreat, but it was exciting.

It had not been a year since I had attempted to write my first picture book to my first viable submission.

I rewrote my story and had it critiqued again. Tricia reread it again and like the changes and I submitted my manuscript. The publisher was going through a change, but five months later I had a contract with Graphic Arts Books to publish Pedro’s Pan through their Alaska Northwest Books imprint.

On February 19th, 2019, the book will be released.

My writing story is not a typical one. I know of writers, many far more talented than I am, who are still unpublished or have spent years before they have published a book. I have been blessed. My story was in the right place at the right time. It found its champions who brought it from thought to life.

I still have a stack of ideas in my drawer, some bad, others worse. I hope that one day, another one will be just as lucky and finds it home. Until then, I keep writing, I keep critiquing and I keep remembering how blessed I have been.

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep loving what you do. And find your champions.

Short Story: Delivery

This story is based off of real events that happened when I was about ten years old. I grew up in rural Alaska and we almost missed out on Christmas. I remember on Christmas Eve delivering packages to families on my snow machine and the thrill it gave me to be like Santa and seeing the smiles on parents faces.

In the heart of Alaska where there were no roads and mail only came by plane, a sleepy rural town was settling in for a cold Christmas Eve. Temperatures had dropped to a dreadful minus forty for two weeks and planes had not flown. Then, miraculously, this morning, hopes rose with the temperature that Christmas packages might be delivered just in time.

People looked to the skies and listened for the planes, but all they heard was the soft fall of large snowflakes that kept the planes grounded.

Long after everyone had gone to bed, off in the distance, Post Master Jim heard the buzz of an engine. It sailed through the sky and over the snow laden clouds but could not see the airstrip below. Jim woke his young son Mark and they sprang into action lighting fires along the airstrip.

With lights to guide them, three planes weighed down with gifts and mail quickly unloaded and took off into the snowflake sky.

“We have to deliver these!”

So Mark sped into the night on his snow machine to deliver packages for Christmas morning. With a quiet knock on the door, he left the packages and moved on to the next family. All they saw was someone dressed in a red coat and flowing white scarf speed away.

Children awakened by the sound would swear to this day that Santa had visited them that Christmas Eve, not on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but on a red snow machine.

Short Story: Missing Menorah

Peter put on the coat donated to him after this morning’s fire. It was snug, but it was better than nothing.

He passed his parents who were showing the family that took them in how to make raspberrysufganiyot, so they might keep at least one Hanukkah tradition.

Dad looked tired when he smiled. “Be back inside in an hour. We have prayers to recite.”

Even though his parents told him they had much to be thankful for, Peter did not feel thankful. He did not feel like celebrating or playing, but he had a plan.

He worked as long as he could before the cold drove him back inside.

The families ate dinner together before enjoying sufganiyot for dessert.

“These donuts are delicious!” their host exclaimed.

“They are sufganiyot,” dad explained. “We eat these fried pastries during Hanukkah to commemorate the temple oil that lasted eight days. We light eight candles on our menorah…”

The room grew quiet as dad trailed off.

“Grab your coat.” Peter said.

They followed him to the yard to find a large menorah carved out of snow. Glow sticks glowed in place of the candles.

Tears in his eyes, dad exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful menorah I have ever seen.”

Peter held out a glow stick to dad who shook his head and placed his hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Tonight, you are the shamash.”

Peter placed the final light before they all happily returned to the warmth of the house and another sufganiyot.

My Journey to Becoming an Author Part 4: Changes

I was told by many that my last post in this series was depressing, or at least the ending. That was the point. It sucked. It took me nearly three years to overcome that. One day, I came to realize that I had not written a bad story. In fact, my story was good enough to be published, just not by me.

I had a story brewing in my head. It combined all the things I liked about fantasy, scifi and mysteries. But I haven’t been able to put it down on paper. It is there, lurking, but I can’t get it done.

In 2015, I started writing a middle grade book. Though I was now teaching first grade, this idea had stuck with me since the NaNoWriMo days for a story. I dug out a notebook and started writing down ideas. Those ideas turned into chapters and soon I wrote a story.

I then began to type it out. It flowed out of me. All that time playing World of Warcraft had improved my typing skills. When you are in a dungeon and someone yells “Leroy Jenkins!” Well, let’s just say you have to communicate real fast.

I sat aside time every day to write, and often went over. I set myself word count goals and often doubled them. I went to bed thinking about the story. I thought about it as I drove to work. In the shower. At the store. Everywhere.

In less than two weeks, I had written a manuscript and revised it.

I still did not have a critique group.

Then I met someone who was interested in writing like me. She was smart, engaging, funny and did I mention smart?

She was working on picture books and I thought to myself, “How hard can that be?” After all, it is less than a thousand words. And I tell stories. And they are for kids.

Spoiler alert, they are easy to write, but hard to write well.

I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and my first critique group. They were having a conference and I saw there was an opportunity to share manuscripts for a one on one critique.

So, naively, I sent in my middle grade and a picture book that I had worked on.

I had my critique with an agent on my middle grade story. I will paraphrase all the nice things she said during my 15 minute critique. “You are obviously a newbie.” She did give me some great advice and did not crush my soul right on the spot. But to this day, as I have grown as a writer, I realize that even after multiple rewrites, her advice still holds true and my story is not ready.

My second critique was with an editor on my picture book idea. After pleasantries, her first words to me were, “Are you sure this is a picture book?” Translation: “You are obviously a newbie.”

I thought my story was good. It was a biography of a prospector. I told his story well, I just did not write it well. Again, I got some good advice, but it was clear I was not a picture book writer. I needed to do more showing and not telling.

By the way, if anyone is clear on when and how to do that, please let me know. Every time I think I have it figured out, something changes.

My wife, I was newly married to that smart, engaging and funny woman, and I watched a webinar in which the presenter talked about letting your manuscript rest. To just put it away for a while.

That sounded good to me! Into a drawer it went.

My Journey to Becoming an Author Part 3: First Attempts

After struggling for years and giving up on writing, I took up the mantle again in 2011. I had a story to tell.

I was teaching as a long term sub in a 4/5 combo class and I was introduced to NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month was meant to encourage people to sit down and write. We participated as a class and I finished my first novel.

I will not lie, it was horrible. To give you an idea of how horrible, imagine finding a cooler that had been sitting out all summer filled with fish and for some reason, an opened jar of mayonnaise. With a dash of ammonia.

But I was determined. I spent months writing, revising and rewriting the story. I did not have a critique group, but I knew I was a good enough writer, I could do it on my own. I mean, I had earned awards for my writing before.

After four months of revisions, hundreds of hours of writing, pencils, pens and notebooks, I had a story.

My school librarian had encouraged me to write it so I thought I would let her be the first to read my masterpiece. She was gracious enough to do so and took it home over a long weekend.

I was so excited. I wondered how to sell it. I had no clue. I wondered if I would get enough for the book to finally buy a house.

When Monday came around, I showed up to work early, but was then too afraid to ask. What if she thought it was horrible?

So I waited until the end of the day. I walked in and she handed me my manuscript. All over the 100+ pages, she had written in purple ink.

I stared at my manuscript for a second, fearful to even read the first words.

“I think it is a great story,” she started. “You have a knack for telling stories. I like your writing style.”

She went on for a few moments giving me encouraging words while I read her comments on my cover page. “Great idea. Have you ever read Hatchet?”

I looked up her and said, “Hatchet? I have seen some kids reading it.”

“Oh, it is a fantastic book!” She went to her reshelving cart and pulled a copy off and handed it to me.

I flipped it to the back and read it. I stood stunned for a long moment. I sunk down onto a chair and started flipping through the book. My story was right there. Even down to the main characters name. Sure there were differences, but not many.

She came over a placed a hand on my shoulder. “You never really read this?”

I shook my head and felt the sting of tears. Frustration welled up inside me and I pulled it deep and tried to hide it.

I stood up and handed her the book and thanked her for reading my manuscript and giving my such positive and encouraging words about my work.

“If you never read Hatchet and wrote such a great story, that means you are a good writer.”

I thanked her again. I am sure she said more, but I was stuck in a fog. I wandered back to the classroom and dumped the manuscript into the recycling bin.

I began to think of other stories that I wanted to write and wondered how many had already been written.

I went home and packed up my notebooks and played World of Warcraft.

 

My Journey to Becoming an Author Part 2: My First Story

Despite my struggles in learning to read, I have always been an avid story teller. I love the freedom stories provide. The ability to explore your imagination and push the boundaries of who and what you are.

The first story I remember writing was in third grade. I not only wrote my story, but I illustrated it. I was proud of that story and the work I did. We had been studying legends in class (of 2 students by the way) and we were encouraged to create our own local legend.

I wrote a “legend” about how a creek became crooked. What I learned from that was that my stories could be shaped by the world around me and that I could shape the world around me with my stories.

I was of no illusion that my legend would be believed or was even true, but it allowed me to explore the world in a new way. I created stories about what I was seeing and used what I did know to try to uncover what I did not know.

While I became an avid reader, my focus on reading became fantasy, science fiction and mysteries. Each provided a different escape. Fantasy pushed the imagination while being founded in social norms. Science fiction pushed social norms but required logic. Mysteries challenged both logic and the imagination as I tried to solve the mystery before the author revealed it.

I even love a good real mystery, especially an ancient one, that pushes the imagination and makes you rethink the world around you.

While reading became an outlet for me, writing never could keep up with my imagination. I will not lie; my penmanship is poor. I have seen doctor’s signatures that are more legible.

So, I became a bullet writer. It wasn’t even an outline. I would just string together a bunch of ideas and go back and fill in the blanks later. My success rate was not very high, but my frustration was.

I even started telling my stories to a tape recorder and then going back and typing them up. But I soon realized that my typing skills were even worse off than my penmanship. And forget writing it out by hand or if a tape was lost or ruined.

I wrote a few things in high school and college, and I even won some awards.

But life has a funny way of getting in the way and changing the course we are determined to go down.

My Journey to Becoming an Author: Part 1 Learning to Read

I was a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to reading. It was not until third grade that I really became an avid reader. Growing up in rural Alaska limited my access to books, as did my dyslexia.

I do not want to disparage my upbringing or my school. My experiences in life have been unique and amazing. Our small school of 10-30 students (all grades) had a decent sized library, most of which was donated.

I will never forget “learning” to read. I recall letters and sound and basic phonics coming fairly easy, but I struggled to read. I remember one day my teacher/principal getting frustrated that I was having difficulties selecting and reading a book. I did well in my schoolwork and he assumed I was being difficult. That was understandable since I was a nine year old boy.

I went to the shelf and selected a Clifford the Big Red Dog book because I had it read to me so many times I had it memorized. I felt confident in it and it made me feel good.

You can imagine my frustration when my teacher came over and took the book from me and told me I had to select a chapter book. I went to the shelf where only the spines stuck out and realized I couldn’t read half of the words on them.

I finally selected a book based on the following words that I could read: Lion, Witch and War. How wrong could you go with a story with those three words?

I sat down on a beanbag and opened the book and thumbed through to find the pictures. Spoiler alert, the version I had only had three pictures, and they were in black and white. So I did what any wise third grader does, I started on chapter one and waited for the bell to ring.

Growing up in rural Alaska, my bus ride home was 45 minutes long, most of which I sat alone. I wanted to read, so I decided that the bus ride would be a perfect time. After we dropped off most of the kids, I pulled the book out of my backpack, it was called The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (I had an older girl read the title to me and still did not know what a wardrobe was) and read it for the last 20 minutes of the bus ride.

I did not even finish the first chapter. And it was short. And I was frustrated.

I shoved it back into my pack and got off of the bus and vowed that I would finish the book.

So the next day, on the bus ride, I pulled out my book again and spent 5 minutes trying to find my spot. I finally gave up and decided to start over, and as the bus pulled up to my house, I finally reached the spot from the day before.

I had the entire weekend to forget what I had read, so on Monday, I started at the beginning again and read nearly to the end of the chapter. So close in fact, that after my chores, I sat down and finished it.

The next day I was determined to read the next chapter and read only three pages. I wanted to throw that evil book into the fire.

So the next day, I realized my problem wasn’t the reading, the problem was that I did not understand. I concocted a ridiculous idea that I would reread the first chapter since I had already completed it and that if I read that enough, I might understand the story better and that would mean I would do better in chapter 2.

And it worked! Not for the reasons I thought, but that day, I reread chapter 1 and made into chapter 2. I was so excited.

And that is how it went day after day. I would start with chapter 1 and then jump to wherever I was at (I made a bookmark). By the time I was in the middle of the book, I could read chapter 1 and usually all of whatever chapter I jumped to in my 20 minutes.

My excitement for reading and knowledge became insatiable. I read everything. It got to the point my mother had to take books away from me until I did my chores and whatever else was expected of me.

As a teacher, I look back on that process and realize that what I had really done was built my confidence and expanded my visual vocabulary. Reading had not become easier, but I had learned that I could do it and the common mistakes that I made.

It wouldn’t be until later in life that I found out the problems I was having was because of dyslexia. I am thankful for that because it never gave me a crutch; a label. I learned to persevere and overcome. I have the power to do that.

I would never have become a writer if I had never learned to read. I am forever thankful to Mr. Rusyniak for pushing me to read and taking a stand.

While I have always told stories, my story as an author began with truly learning to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

PS- I was disappointed to find out that a wardrobe had nothing to do with a war.