I am a firm believer in the saying, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d have connections to a critiquing professional, who was also a special needs mom. There was much for me to learn about the art of writing, and I was eager to dig in and learn from the best.
That first essay draft of A Different Kind of Childcare was an exhausting piece to write. I was glad to know I had something to work off from, but I had to take a break. My daughter’s accident wasn’t the only part of my life that I thought was worth writing about. There was goodness, laughter, and other experiences that I wanted to put into print. Getting published was just one part of my writing goal. The other was that I didn’t want my life stories to die along with me.
I had my next project mulling around in my head. It was a comical version that I’d tell people about the time I agreed to go out in an evening snowstorm, to help my husband dump corn kernels at his deer stand, because he promised to take me out to eat afterward.
My fingers seemed to fly across the keyboard. I had fun inserting my sense of humor into the storytelling. I enjoy making people laugh, even if it is at the expense of me.
The first draft was 15 pages, 4425 words. I titled the piece, Thoughtful Intentions and a Bad Idea.
On Tuesday, March 18th, 2014, I paid the required $56.00 fee, and sent the manuscript to 2nd Draft, Attn: Carolyn Walker. Category: Nonfiction- Romantic Comedy.
On March 26th, 2014, Carolyn emailed her review and comments. I clicked on the email attachment and felt my hands sweat while I waited for the download.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before reading the first paragraph of Carolyn’s review; Thank you for sending your story to Second Draft for review. I enjoyed reading it. It’s a lot of fun, with a quirky, interesting narrator. You did a great job of maintaining a solid tone throughout the piece. The piece is funny, as you intended. I laughed . . . I think this piece has lots of potential, and it is the kind of thing women would enjoy reading. (Not to say that men wouldn’t like it, but it’s sort of Erma Bombeck-y in nature and women love that!) I don’t think it’s quite arrived at its potential, however . . .
I can still remember how my heart fluttered when I read her remarks. Carolyn Walker, who was a published author, college instructor, and Writer’s Digest critique specialist, enjoyed reading my work. That was the day I knew I had what it took to be a writer.
I learned through the critiquing process that writing was a lot of hard work. Thoughtful Intentions and a Bad Idea took seven rewrites over a 15-month period. Working with Carolyn, I was getting college-level training for a fraction of the price.
I didn’t just read Carolyn’s responses and critiques. I studied them.
My first lesson was on verb-tense. Carolyn suggested I pick a tense and stick with it. She got my undivided attention when she added; inadvertent verb tense change has the effect of looking amateurish. I certainly didn’t want that!
Carolyn gave me comments on content. I wrote about my fear of bears, except I didn’t make my fear sound believable. When I re-read the paragraph, as written below, I understood what I had done wrong.
Although I wasn’t alone, I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. I understood I was in another living being’s playground and I was the foreigner. The only thought that kept me from completely freaking out was the fact that these wild animals in the forest are supposedly more afraid of us than we are of them.
Carolyn suggested I use more powerful imagery and go there in writing. I edited the paragraph to read like this,
I got the feeling that we were being watched. My husband was not properly using the flashlight. He wasn’t periodically searching for glowing eyes in the dark. He seemed to be oblivious to how cunning bears could be when they hunted humans. Only I seemed to understand that a bear was a patient predator and stalked their prey. I got to see this for myself in a movie I watched some years ago called ‘The Edge.’
Dialogue was part of my writing that was missing. Carolyn wrote, part of what makes this kind of piece work, of course, is the back-and forth between husband and wife, male and female. The ‘play’ that contains truth. We need a bit more of that.
Writing past the natural ending was another issue I had. It wasn’t easy for me to highlight and delete those last 349 words. I thought that the punch line I ended the essay with wrapped up the story like a bow on a package. But what I learned was endings need to be earned, bows are not a good thing. Carolyn’s last comment was, consider ending the piece where I have suggested.
As hard as it was to delete that last page of prose, I did. It was more important to me to become a published author than to waste time on a bruised ego. Over time, I understood what she was trying to teach me about the natural ending to an essay.
The editing part of writing takes hard work and commitment. For me, digging in, fleshing out, and verb tense have taken time to learn.
Carolyn reminded me more than once that she was just a guide. I had to trust my own instincts. But as a novice writer, I didn’t feel like I had earned any credible feelings about my work yet. So, I put my faith in the person who had, and made the changes when she suggested them.
Even though I remembered reading in manuals that it is easy for writers to fall in love with their words, I was doing just that. It was tough for me to delete things from my essays. Believe it or not, some of those sentences took me an hour. One page could have taken me days. I’m embarrassed to admit that like a stubborn child, I’d sometimes leave some of my beloved passages right where I wrote them.
I realized that some of my problem wasn’t so much as being stubborn, but more of the fact that my writing was becoming a diary of sorts, including events I didn’t want to forget. Sometimes I researched for days to get the facts right. Depending on the topic, I’d contact my sisters and brothers, friends, and acquaintances, and pick their brains. I’d call on my Mom and push her to remember things from long ago. I enjoyed weaving the information into my essays, rewriting them until the flow felt right.
I found the perfect solution. I started pasting the cuts to a document I titled, ‘Notes.’
I’ve learned that the more I deleted, added, and changed under Carolyn’s suggestions, the better my stories got. Having a place where I can safely keep the rejects has made my editing process a much more enjoyable experience. I don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water and I end up rewarded with a polished and publishable piece.
My first writing project was a novel. It was so bad that my best idea for the title was, The Book. I dragged the story out to the recommended 250 pages. I wrote 33 chapters, plus a bonus Prologue and Epilogue. By the time I wrote, The End, it was like I could finally let it go. I gave it all I had. There were parts I loved, characters I loved, places I could see in my imagination, but it was never going to develop into anything.
Like a heartsick lover, it took me almost five years to take another chance. And like an awakening, I knew what I wanted to write about. I’d write about my life when I was a single parent, raising four children, one of whom was handicapped.
I’m one of those people who like to research and learn about a subject before powering ahead. The first thing I did was take a drive to the Duluth Barnes & Noble store and I bought two books. Memoir Writing for Dummies, and Turning Memories into Memoirs, by Denis Ledoux. I read through each book and highlighted areas I thought would be helpful.
My best creative thoughts would come to me during my evening runs. I would put in my ear buds and let my imagination go. I knew what parts would be important to write about, because the thought of how I’d write it, would make me cry.
It was on October 24th, 2013 when I was ready. The first words came easy. I typed in the title, A Different Kind of Childcare.
I worked 12 hours and 59 minutes on the 1166-word essay. Writing about my perfectly healthy baby suffocating between the crib rail and mattress was heartbreaking. To write about my daily wakeful nightmare, accepting the fact that the lack of oxygen caused my baby’s irreversible brain damage, was painful and depressing. The worst part to write, was when I had to write that I knew the crib screw holes on the posts were stripped out.
Writing about that part of my life brought me a healing and forgiveness that is known to happen through journaling.
I loved my story. I wondered whether others would. I was curious. Was it any good?
My next step was to find out if my writing ability had any promise. Although I wanted to be a published author someday, I was okay with letting the dream go if it wasn’t meant for me.
I bought the Writer’s Market, ‘the most trusted guide to getting published.’ I subscribed to the Writer’s Digest magazine. I searched online for tips on getting published. The first thing I learned about an unpublished writer’s life was, you best get used to rejection. Submit, submit, submit was the solution. I hadn’t had any work ready for submission yet, but knowing rejection was commonplace, was important for me to know. Without that knowledge, I may have given up. The second thing I learned was, send your best work, polished, and free of errors.
Although I saw many recommendations on working with a writers’ group, I didn’t think I’d fit that mold. Artists are generally kind people. If my writing was bad, I wanted someone to tell me that from the get-to, no holding back. I also had the mantra in my head, if you want to be the best, learn from the best.
I looked through the advertisers in my Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s where I spotted the 2nd Draft critique & editing services.
On March 7th, 2014, I worked up the courage, paid the $46.00 service fee, and submitted my essay.
My work was assigned to Carolyn Walker. When I researched her credentials;
Carolyn Walker began writing at age ten, has been a published journalist, columnist and author for more than twenty-five years, and has worked independently as an editor.
I knew I would be working with one of the best. That was, if my manuscript got past the first read.
On March 11th, I got the results. I almost cried when I read the message; Attached you will find my comments on your essay. It has lots of potential. Thank you. Carolyn Walker
I had potential!
Having someone like Carolyn write that abut me was all I needed.
Carolyn Walker, MFA, Author Every Least Sparrow, (Garner Press)
My first writing project was a novel. It was a pretty hefty project, but it was something I had thought about doing for at least a decade, and I was excited to begin.
I had no formal training, so the first step I took was a trip to a Barnes & Noble. As I wandered through the store searching for the books that would teach me how to write, I imagined what my book would look like on the shelf. I smiled with the anticipation. It felt like I was carrying a secret that I was going to be a famous author, and someday I would share my stories with the world.
I found the section I was looking for in the less populated part of the store. The aisle was empty so I had an easy time browsing the shelves, fingering the books on grammar, reference sources and dictionaries.
I spotted a book titled, How to Write & Sell Your First Novel, and pulled it from the shelf. I glanced back and pulled a handful of books on the subject. I sat on the floor and studied each one. I felt choosing the right guidebook would play an important part in my book’s success. I spent hours picking through the selection and finally decided on three. They were; The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, The First Five Pages, and How to Write &Sell your First Novel.
I was already working a full-time job and had the responsibilities of a wife and parent to five children, so finding the time for this project wasn’t easy. I was always a reader, so I replaced the time I spent reading novels, with learning how to write them.
The one thing that was consistent in each of the books was how important it was to make time each day to write. That made sense to me. I wanted to have at least one hour a day for writing, so I made the commitment to get up at 4:00am. It was the only time of day that I knew I could work uninterrupted. And because my adrenaline was pumped, it was easy for me to jump out of bed, and cozy up to my desktop computer that was set up in the dining room.
I didn’t have any great plot in mind, but according to the books, that was okay. I learned that often times writers let the story unfold as they go. I had a great imagination, so I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t come up with ideas.
Mary Higgins Clark was one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would write a mystery, and use her story rhythm and style as a guide. I studied the first five pages of her book, Loves Music, Loves to Dance. I took notes on the characters, and how she introduced them. How she described the setting. I wrote down the emotions I felt while reading her words. I took note of smells and sounds.
I had to ‘write what I knew,’ so I began my story at a place where I used to party as a teenager. It had the remote country setting I needed for a murder to take place. I chose a boy and a girl who used to party there to become my main characters. In real life, the girl stole my first love from me, so I was looking forward to killing her off in my tale. The boy was an arrogant ick, and I was looking forward to describing him as the creep I thought he was. I gave the teenage girl a daughter. In hope to hook my reader in the first five pages, I kicked off my story in an ominous nighttime setting. I added music. For the plot, I had the child get tired of asking her mom to go home, only to stomp off to her mom’s station wagon and fall asleep in the back amongst a bunch of boxes. I needed to introduce the crime that needed to be solved, so I ended the chapter with the daughter waking up when she feels the car bouncing along the dirt road. When she sees the boy driving the vehicle, she becomes frightened and stays hidden. She ends up witnessing the boy rape and murder her mom.
Those first chapters were quite a learning experience. I kept going back and forth between my writing guide books and my work in progress. I had to adjust the ages of my main characters because I had to make the girl old enough to have a child, yet young enough to be at the party. I added the boxes to the back of the station wagon because I needed a way for the child to stay hidden. I’d never been raped, but I’ve seen movies on the subject. In order for me to describe that scene, I remember sitting at the computer with my eyes closed, my fingertips on the keyboard, deep breathing and imagining myself there. I was so deeply focused that I didn’t hear my daughter, Steph, enter the room. She asked, with pure astonishment, “what are you doing???” I opened one eye and answered, “getting into character?!” I still laugh about that.
Throughout the writing of the book, I’d take my real-life challenges, or take the latest news headlines and weave the information into the story. After a year of creating a constantly shifting plot, I wrote myself into a heap of disorder, with characters I grew to love. I remember sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, and forcing my fingers to type something. Anything. I got to the point where I needed to just end it.
I tied up the loose ends the best I could. And because I was being me and like happy endings, and even though I already wrote 240 pages of suspense, murder, with loving characters, I changed the entire flavor of the story, and ended the tale, giving my main character the love she always wanted.
Just like the guidebooks suggested, I put my manuscript away before starting the editing process.
I was like an expectant mother, excited to birth my child.
With pen in hand, ready to highlight areas to correct, it didn’t take me long to see I had a mess on my hands. I liked the beginning, with the child who witnessed the murder of her mom. That child was grown up in Chapter 2 and became the main character with no memory of the murder. The story was flowing okay until Chapter 3. The tone of the book changed when I introduced a best friend for my main character.
The dialogue between my main character and best-friend was light-hearted and friendly. You could feel the shift. Ominous was gone and a looking for love story was introduced, and I didn’t even know I did that. The main character was someone who I could identify with. I felt I did well with that part of my writing.
And then somewhere in Chapter 10, I had an anthrax attack.
I realized I had nothing to work with. I liked parts of my novel, some of the writing was really good. But with the mixed tones, genres, and plots, I knew I’d have to start over. I was proud that I finished the project, even though the product that I produced was poor.
I think it was five years later before I started writing again. I missed it, the creativity of it, the love of playing with words and bringing a story to life. I decided to take a story from my life where I knew the beginning, the middle, and the end. I wrote an essay. And that is where I found the niche in the writing world that I seemed to fit.
Do you have a story you’d want to share with the world? Would you write fiction or non-fiction? Poetry? Guide Books?
In every instructional book I read, the first rule of thumb to be a writer was always, you must be one of those people who loves to read. I was a bit of a late-bloomer.
I was 17-years-old when my friend Yvonne introduced me to a paperback Chivalric romance novel. After reading the fictitious tale about the rogue and rich Samuel and his undying quest for Catalina’s heart, I was hooked. I identified myself with the female character. Catalina was strong, fearless and courageous. She had a body to die for. Catalina was the kind of woman I wanted to become.
I started shopping for books at the local drugstore. The spinning display held a large selection of paperbacks with covers of handsome, masculine men who made their protagonist women swoon with desire. Those distressed damsels had the kind of confidence and demure that I bestowed only in my imaginary world. Jobs and money, or the lack there of, was never an issue. The author was careful about hooking your identity to the rich, or at least allowed you to believe there was a chance your place in society would be that of the upper class by the story’s end.
By the time I was 19, I was a home-owner, married, and pregnant with my first child. I was disappointed when I found my life absent of the romantic adventures that I loved reading about. We never had any extra money for vacations to a glamorous city. The romance and undying support I hoped to get in my marriage became more of a life-lesson experience. After eight years of marriage, we got divorced and were faced with a new challenge of co-parenting our four children. I gave up my Chivalric romance novels and started shopping in the self-help section of the book store. It was there that I found a connection to people like me. Throughout the years, I never had to be alone to deal with the challenges and struggles of life. I could always find a book on the shelf that was written by an author who survived the exact thing I was going through.
Books have always been a way for me to find a sense of balance. I have visited and read stories from most of the literary genres. My favorites are Comedy, Mystery, and Romance. When I read for entertainment, I want a story that promises a happy ending. The only category I avoid is horror. Those plot types cause me to lose sleep and have nightmares.
Do books make a difference in your life? What is your favorite genre? Is there a category you avoid?