How did I write my book?

dare to begin

Bridget asked me to share my “expertise” on writing my first novel, and at first, I felt bemused because I sure as heck don’t feel like an expert. Sure I wrote a novel and am now editing and preparing queries and synopsis and 10-50 page excerpts to send to agents, but an expert? I don’t think so.

I’ve wanted to write a book for years. Most of my life. I started this novel when I was 44 and finished a few months before I turned 46. Before that I was raising kids, working, living the life of a wife and mother. I started writing a book a few times. I’d get a few pages in, decide the idea was stupid and stop writing. I was already a published journalist, having freelanced for some local newspapers and been a staff writer for trade magazine publisher. I thought that might be enough. But I knew that there was a book buried deep of me. I just didn’t have the time (or the energy) to get it out.

In my late 30’s, I went to grad school and got a teaching degree. Through some weird cosmic justice (I’d been living with the last name “Read” for more than 20 years at this point) I found myself teaching high school English. I taught some literature courses and then I was asked to teach Creative Writing. I taught Creative Writing for two years, acting the expert on how to write short stories, poetry, scripts, and creative nonfiction. In the back of my mind, I knew I should be writing my own book by now, but again, I let my obligations fill my time. I had assignments to grade and lessons to plan and my own children to raise.

One day I was tooling around on the internet, searching terms like “How to write a book” and “Writing your first book”. I cameSchermafbeelding 2014-12-03 om 11.55.17 upon NowNovel.com. The site had a lot of practical information, which I’d found countless times on other websites. But NowNovel was different because it broke down the process of planning to write a book into steps I thought I could handle. And it was free to start. Being a teacher wasn’t making me rich and four kids pretty much sucked up what little extra cash there was. So, free was good.

I started using the site and worked my way through the online workshops on the central idea and the story tester. It was a good learning experience for me because it helped me focus on small steps. It was practical and easy to understand. No one was monitoring me so I never felt like my ideas were stupid.

Then I stalled. My job was stressful. I was a new teacher at the age of 42. I wanted to write, but I was frustrated with all of the things that occur when you are approaching middle age and you aren’t where you expected to be professionally or financially. And I doubted. Just because I wanted to write a book, didn’t mean it would be any good. I read constantly and damn there were some writers out there that I would never, ever compete with. I didn’t know if I wanted to compete. If I put myself out there, I was risking rejection. Risking being told I couldn’t write; go back to my day job.

And then I got one of the emails Bridget sends with all sorts of helpful information on writing. I always read them, and I’m so glad I did at least this small thing. Because when she offered to mentor three site members through writing their first novel, I figured, well why not? The worst that will happen is that I won’t be chosen.

So I sent her an email, gave her my sob story, and said that unless I had someone nagging and pushing me, I was afraid my book would never be written. I’d never won a contest before or been chosen for a special award, so I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. I could be one of 50 people or 100 people or even more and I usually didn’t have good luck like that.

But miracle of miracles, Bridget picked me. She picked ME! I was so excited I told everyone. Then Bridget emailed and we set up a Skype date. I’d never Skyped before. Plus, she’s in South Africa and I’m in the United States in Pennsylvania. She was exotic, a writer and I was boring. I was freaked out. I was worried it wouldn’t work or I’d be late or some other thing and she’d throw up her hands, decide I was a boob and give up. It all worked out. The call cut off a couple of times, but we finally talked about my book, what I wanted to write about and an experience I’d had that I wanted to make part of my story.

She asked me if I wanted to continue doing the online workshops or did I want to start writing. I was a little afraid to dive right in so I decided that continuing on with online workshops would be best. Sure, I’d taught creative writing, but I’d never actually taken any writing courses for myself. Bridget promised me she’s nag me regularly and gave me a two-week deadline to complete two more workshops.

The rest is what you would expect. I worked my way through the workshops until I suddenly felt like I was ready to write something. Bridget made me commit to getting 10,000 words written. And so I wrote. It was strange. I had to build up endurance. Some days I’d write for 15 minutes, checking the time every three minutes, in agony because I couldn’t seem to focus. Other days I’d write for an hour and come for air with 1,000 words written. And so the first 10,000 words, were written, then 20,000. I struggled my way through 50,000 words, writing for several hours at a stretch almost every day. This was during the summer, when I wasn’t teaching. I wrote in the morning while I ate breakfast. I took my kids to pool and wrote under an umbrella. I wrote in the evenings after dinner. Fortunately, I’d earned a masters degree online with Sponge Bob Square Pants playing the background, so I was able to tune things out.

Then school started and I was overwhelmed. That’s normal, I know, but it really frustrated me. I teach online, so after eight or nine hours of being on a computer, five days a week, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on the computer and write. I stalled again. I made excuses to Bridget who was very patient. And then I got sick. It wasn’t a life threatening condition, just a thyroid condition, but it brought me to my knees. I was working from bed, and then moving to couch for dinner until I went back to bed. It took months before I was finally diagnosed, and more months before I was through treatment and put on the right mix of medications. By the end of the school year I was recovering. But so much time had passed. I figured Bridget had given up on me.

But we emailed again and she told me she was with me on this book until the end. That was what got me writing again. That she had faith that I would finish

I wrote through the summer, had a relapse, and returned to school to find I was teaching Creative Writing and a literature course. The book was put aside while I familiarized myself with American Literature. My thyroid condition was a roller coaster that year, under control at some points, at others derailing me to the point that if I didn’t take a nap every afternoon, I couldn’t make it through the day. I thought about my book. Ideas for the plot, new scenes. But I wasn’t writing.

coffee bookBy the end of the school year I was back on the right meds and starting to feel better. I started writing again and my word count crawled upward, from 50,000 words, to 60,000 and finally 80,000. Sometimes I wrote for ten minutes. Other days I managed an hour. There were sometimes days or even week that went by and I didn’t write at all. Summers off aren’t really summers off. I had two kids under the age of twelve who argued, and got bored and needed to be fed every day. It was easy to get sidetracked.

Throughout this process, Bridget stayed in touch. She emailed me every few weeks, checking in. She didn’t pressure me or make me feel guilty when I told her I wasn’t writing. I appreciated that.

By now, 18 months had gone by. The school year began again, and I wanted to be done. I told Bridget that I would be done by the end of the summer. My school year began mid-August, but the summer season didn’t end officially until the third week in September. I was determined to finish.

With the end in sight, my writing picked up. I built my endurance back up and was writing at least an hour most days. Friends and family kept asking me when I would finish the book. I told them it would get done when I knew I’d finished the story. My tale unfolded as I wrote; sometimes taking turns I hadn’t planned on.

On Sept. 21, 2014, almost two years since I’d sent that email to Bridget, hoping she’d mentor me and help me finally, finally, write my book, I finished my first novel, coming in at just under 97,000 words. I emailed Bridget and she responded with so much pride and enthusiasm, it was like finally getting an A on my report card.

Bridget and Brendan (who stepped in when Bridget wasn’t available) are pretty much the reason I finished. I’ve always prided myself on being someone who got things done, kept promises and finished what I started. I started this process two years ago, and Bridget and Brendan took the time to help me. I owed it to them to give it my best effort. Oh, and of course, I did for myself. I’m pretty proud of myself, too.

I don’t know if it will ever be published. If I can’t get a traditional agent or publisher interested, I’ll publish it myself. I have some people reading it for me – I sent it to three fellow English teachers. Now if that isn’t nerve wracking, I don’t know what is. Of course Bridget is reading it, too.

So, if you are still toying with that idea, struggling to sit down just write something, wondering if it is even worth it to try because how many people write a book and never get published? STOP thinking those thoughts. Just do it already. Use NowNovel.com to help you. Be very nice to Bridget and maybe she will mentor you, too. Bridget asked me to write this as a blog post about my experience, but really, this is a heartfelt thank you letter. Thank you, Bridget and Brendan, for sticking with me and helping me to fulfill a dream that was a long time coming.

Images from here, here and here

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