Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How I Overcame Lack of Support and Became a Writer Anyway

Whenever I do school visits to talk about my middle-grade paranormal mystery series, The Phantom Hunters, educators often ask me if I had a grade-school teacher who encouraged me.

The unfortunate answer is no.

Perhaps it was because I went to a Catholic grade school where the emphasis was on recruiting priests and nuns.

I decided I wanted to be a writer as early as the 4th grade. Granted my early “novels” consisted mainly of first chapters about a stallion watching over a herd of mares and foals—typical adolescent subject matter for the time.

In 5th grade, however, a freelance writer (let’s call him “Mr. Smith”) visited our class to help us with fiction. I had high hopes of producing a quality tale worthy of praise, but rather than nurturing our imaginations, he told us to compose a story about a chair and, in the next session, one about an angel. Neither of these topics inspired me. I wanted to write about cowboys and horses and the Old West.  

In 7th grade, we lucked out with a lay teacher instead of a nun. Maybe since he wasn’t in the religious life, my fortune might change! I tried to get Mr. Elmer to read my chapters, but he really didn’t want to. Was it because he later followed this school’s wishes for vocational callings and became a priest?

Because of Mr. Smith, however, I felt discouraged about “creative writing” classes and didn’t take any in high school or college because I thought I’d be told what to produce. In addition, I avoided working on the school newspapers and yearbooks for the same reason. I later realized this was a severe mistake on my part and very shortsighted.

Unfortunately, I let the one negative experience from grade school influence my thinking and limit my avenues of creative opportunity throughout my remaining educational years. To this day, I regret it.

My senior year of high school, I was in an advanced placement English class. The teacher (let’s call him Mr. Jones), hated my writing, and despite being up until 2 AM every night doing his assigned homework, I never seemed to manage an A. I got my satisfaction, however, when I won the All-City Theme Contest. I’ll never forget how he sputtered announcing the results to the students.

Motivated by this win and undeterred by Mr. Jones, after I graduated from college, my thoughts returned to becoming an author. I wrote my first book—a western, of course—while I was living on a Norwegian-turned-British oil tanker (another whole story that is the subject of my next book). The western remains unpublished, since, in it, I made every error listed in “Common Mistakes Beginning Authors Make.” 

When I returned to the United States, I was thrilled to discover a “Writing for Publication” class through Adult Education. Surely, this class would encourage students in pursuing their own ideas. The instructor, Anne Ewing, a well-known writer, loved my work, and I was exhilarated when, after hearing one of my chapters of my second novel, a sci-fi, she said with enthusiasm, “This girl is going to sell!”

At last, I had found a teacher who supported me.

She invited me and one other student to apply for membership in the prestigious Writers’ Club of Whittier, a critique group that started in 1953 and of which she was a founding member. Through that group, I refined my skills, and I finally started selling articles and short stories. (The WCW is still going this day and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2013.)

I finished the novel I had started prior to Ms. Ewing’s class, but several years passed before I sold my first book-length work, a non-fiction hardcover called Inside Out: The Wonders of Modern Technology. A four-book contract quickly followed for a series called Breakthroughs in Science. In addition, I sold articles to national trade magazines and a few short stories to consumer magazines. Since that time, altogether, I have published 26 books and about 200 articles.

The moral of the story is that I made it despite negative experiences and a lack of encouragement from grade- and high-school teachers. My advice to everyone who wants to be a writer is to ignore naysayers. Don’t let them discourage you. Listen to your own inspiration, to people who offer constructive critique and help you develop your own voice and your craft.  

Write on!

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