Archive for memoir

Starting to Write

I said previously that although I’d been making up stories in my head my whole life, it didn’t occur to me to write them down until I was nearly thirteen. But I did start writing before that. The first time I recall writing something and thinking it was fun was in fourth grade. The teacher put a picture on the board and told us to write something about it. I don’t remember much about it, but there were kids sitting around a candle, and something about it really sparked my imagination. When the allotted time for the assignment was over, I had pages of the beginning of a real story. The teacher saw what I was doing and let me finish it at home and turn it in later. I think the idea was to just write a paragraph or two describing the scene, and I ended up writing a mystery or ghost story. I did my usual short story thing of it spiraling out of control, pacing it as though I was writing a novel, until I just ended it abruptly. I remember having to do some handwaving and one of those “and they solved the mystery” endings just so I could turn it in.

I also remember reading a non-fiction book from the library about starting a family newspaper, and I spent some time trying to write the news. I was writing for fun, but it still didn’t occur to me to write down the stories that were in my head. In sixth grade, we had journals we had to keep in class. When we got to class in the morning, we had to pick up our spiral notebook from a box (mine had The Muppet Show on the cover) and write a page from the prompt on the board. I loved this assignment and had a lot of fun with it. I liked writing assignments in school.

I finally had the “I could write my mental stories down and have a book” realization between sixth and seventh grades when a friend and I were playing Star Wars, running around in the woods, and I told her about the original character I’d made up and had been making up stories about all along. Something about telling her flipped a switch and made me realize that I was writing stories, and I could write them down and share them with people.

The problem was that what I had wasn’t actually stories. I had characters, a situation, and a bunch of moments involving my characters. I realized this once I started writing stuff down. I had all the backstory and worldbuilding, but no actual story. I managed to write a first chapter, but had no idea where to go with it next. Mostly, I ended up making a lot of drawings of the clothes the characters would wear and the floor plans for the place where the characters lived.

We moved soon after that, and when we got to the new place we got all the stuff that had been in storage while we were overseas. In that stuff was an old manual typewriter, and I taught myself to type on it. I got good at the letter characters, but I still come to a screeching halt when it comes to numbers and symbols because that was where I stopped with the how-to-type book I used. Once I could type words, I was off and running. I typed out a bunch of first chapters of potential books, from science fiction to spy thrillers, and they all had that same problem: they were a situation and characters, not a story. This was a problem I didn’t solve until I was out of college and got truly serious about writing. I made a few stabs at writing short stories and I did a lot of worldbuilding, but I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near close to complete.

I don’t think this was wasted time, though. I learned a lot about creating characters and worlds in all those spiral notebooks I filled with writing about the stories I wanted to write. I wrote scenes and got good at stringing words together. I worked on the school newspaper in high school and competed in journalism writing contests. I majored in journalism in college, and I was still scribbling story ideas and notes in spiral notebooks. I took courses that I thought would be useful for when I became a writer. But I still didn’t know how to write a book or even a short story. That would come later.

memoir, writing life

A Lifetime of Stories

Here’s another installment in my writing career memoir. I mentioned before that I didn’t really start writing until I was almost twelve, but I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. That’s been my primary way of playing and of soothing myself.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a good sleeper. It takes me a long time to fall asleep. My parents say that as a baby and toddler I fought sleep, but I’m not sure if I fought it or if it just didn’t happen (or maybe the reason I have trouble is that I trained myself to fight sleep). I’ve never been someone who could fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow, no matter how tired I am. I can do all the calming things before bed—dim lights, soft music, reading until I can’t keep my eyes open—and it still takes me about half an hour to actually fall asleep once I put the book down and turn out the light. And that’s story time. Ever since I can remember, I would make up stories in my head to try to settle down enough to sleep. That’s the only way to stop all the other stuff, like planning the next day, remembering the day that just passed, worrying about stuff, fretting over things I’ve said or done, etc., from swirling around in my brain and keeping me awake. The earliest story I can remember was when I was two and I made up stories about the bear in my room. There was a tree outside my window, and the streetlamp made it cast a shadow on the wall over my bed that looked like a bear standing up, upper legs poised for attack. If a car drove by, the headlights made the shadow move like the bear was rushing toward me. I made up stories about being lost in the woods and chased by the bear, or variations on Goldilocks, or sometimes I was the bear. I managed to psych myself out a few times so that I was convinced the bear was real and called out to my parents, who would have to tell me there was no bear, that it was just a shadow (and then they saw what passing headlights did to it and understood).

As I got older and was watching or reading more complex things with actual stories and characters than you find in toddler entertainment, my mental stories were often essentially fan fiction. I made up more stories for my favorite shows or books, or since a secondary character was usually my favorite, I’d make up stories in which that character was the hero. Since I was trying to get to sleep, the bedtime stories tended to be quieter, like the characters just hanging out and talking or even going to sleep.

It wasn’t just trying to fall asleep at night. I amused myself by making up stories whenever I didn’t have anything else to do. During car rides, I was on a pirate ship, spaceship, or covered wagon, or I was being kidnapped. I acted out stories as a way of playing. I had a drawer full of dress-up clothes, and I’d put on costumes and act out stories, or I’d have my toys act out the stories. I made up stories to string together the songs on cast albums from musicals if I hadn’t actually seen the shows and didn’t know the context for the songs. Or I’d make up new stories for the songs from musicals I knew.

When I was seven, we moved to a neighborhood that had a lot of kids around my age, so I had a big neighborhood gang to hang out with, and we mostly played “let’s pretend.” We never just rode our bikes around the neighborhood. We were riding horses or motorcycles or flying fighter planes. We acted out TV shows, playing things like Star Trek or M*A*S*H. Often, this required making up new characters because there usually weren’t enough female characters for all the girls to take part. We loved it when Charlie’s Angels came out because there were actually three girls, and it was the boys who had to make up new characters. I’d often continue the story from the day’s play as my bedtime story, or I’d make up new stuff for the characters I’d created.

Star Wars came out near the end of third grade for me, but I didn’t see it until I’d started fourth grade, and when everyone in the neighborhood had seen it, that became one of the main things to play. When we played in the swings or rode our bikes, we were flying X-Wings or TIE Fighters. We had lightsaber duels with whatever was handy. Again, I had to make up a new character to play since the girls fought over who got to be Leia, and I made up so many stories about that character that they soon branched out from the Star Wars universe to be their own thing.

Still, in all this time, it never occurred to me to write any of these stories down. I didn’t connect the stories I made up in my head with things like books I read or movies I watched, didn’t consider that all of these were stories someone else had made up and then written down.

I still make up stories in my head to entertain myself. Now, though, I write them down and sell them. My bedtime stories are prime writing time, when I figure out things that can happen in my books. I do still occasionally play with mental fan fiction. That’s a good way to test out plot or character ideas without actually putting them in the book I’m working on, or it gives me ideas for stories when the series my mental fan fiction is based on goes in a different direction from the story in my head and I like my version better.

Next: How the writing began.

memoir

A Lifetime of Reading

I’ve been reading a book that’s part how-to book about how to have a writing career and part author’s memoir, and since I’m planning to start doing more how-to stuff, I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a retrospective on how I came to be an author and some of the wacky things that have happened in my career. That way you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from when I give writing or career advice.

Like many (probably most) writers, I was a reader first. I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My parents are big readers and read to me pretty much since birth. I memorize things easily, so I quickly memorized my favorite books. In fact, my whole family can still recite my favorite book from when I was a toddler by memory. It was a cloth book called Doggy’s Day, and I have tried searching the Internet to find it and learn something about it, but I can’t find it. There are a lot of things that come up in the search, but none of them are the book that starts, “Doggy eats his breakfast, just like you. Then he plays the whole day through.” I was pretty young when I figured out that the words on the page matched the words you said when reading aloud, and from there I was able to read those same words when I saw them somewhere else.

This actually got me in a bit of trouble in kindergarten. Because I’m old, kindergarten was a fairly new thing when I was that age. That was the first year they offered it in public schools in Texas, and I’d already been enrolled in a church school. It was pretty much like preschool is now, just half a day, and we were still learning numbers and letters and things like that. The teacher refused to believe that I could read and told my parents I was lying about that. Then when my parents said that, actually, I could read, the teacher had me prove it. I was reading chapter books in first grade.

We belonged to the Dr. Seuss book club, so we got a new book every month, and that may have started my tilt toward reading fantasy because they were certainly fantastical. Even the ones that weren’t actually Seuss books still had fantasy elements, or at the very least involved talking animals. I don’t think I ever had the “but that can’t happen!” reaction that some people have to fantasy. I liked my stories a bit unrealistic.

I tended to read by theme. I’d get utterly fascinated by a particular topic and read everything I could find that looked like it was on that topic, both fiction and non. The post library at the place we lived when I was in second, third, and fourth grades had a children’s room that had the fiction around the perimeter and non-fiction in the middle, and I remember walking around the room, starting at A, and reading the spines to find the things I was looking for. I remember going through a dance phase, when I’d read anything with “dance” or “ballet” in the title. Then there was the horse phase. The girls in my neighborhood all watched syndicated reruns of Bewitched, so there was a witch phase. Then there was the Nancy Drew phase that got me into mysteries, in general — Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and I think there were some others.

Fourth grade was a big turning point for me because several things happened that year. First, I saw Star Wars early in the school year and became obsessed. I don’t know how many times I reread the novelization. That started me reading other science fiction books and looking for stories with spaceships and robots. It also meant I started reading books published for adults because my parents began sharing their science fiction books with me. Meanwhile, I had a teacher who would read to us every day after recess as a way of getting us to calm down, and she tended to read us things like Roald Dahl and the Oz books. I’d get impatient with a chapter a day, check the book out of the library, and read the whole thing. That meant I read a lot of fantasy that year, including The Hobbit. The animated TV movie version came out that year, and our teacher read the book to us.

I don’t remember a particular phase in fifth grade. That was the year we moved to Germany. I guess I was still reading whatever science fiction I found. I do remember finding the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in sixth grade. Later in sixth grade and into seventh grade I was really into spy stories and books about World War II.

Oddly, I didn’t even start to think about writing books until after seventh grade. I just liked reading. I carried a novel with me to school every day to read whenever I had a chance. I read at bedtime. I read on weekends. Books were what got me through the “new kid” phase whenever we moved. One of the first things we did when we moved to a new place was find the library and get a library card, since that was a lifeline. But even if I wasn’t thinking in terms of being an author all that time, I was absorbing stories and characters, so I’m sure I was preparing myself that whole time.

Up next: Storytelling