When I was in eighth grade, I had really bad hair. It was thick and curly and I had no idea what to do with it. Worse yet–I had swimming first hour. This meant that no matter how semi-normal I was able to look when the first bell rang, by the second bell my hair had taken on a life of its own, expanding to something three times the size of my head.
Why do I tell you this? It’s a metaphor for writing.
The fact is, we all start out with the raw materials but somehow, in the beginning, we’re awkward and gangly. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. Then someone (probably Mom) comes along and says the most paralyzing words in the universe:
“Just be yourself, honey.”
If you’ve survived Junior High, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The oft-repeated phrase, Just be Yourself, only compounds your insecurity problem because (1) you have absolutely no idea who you are; and (2) you are now convinced that everyone else has it figured out, and you’re the only one lost and wallowing in an apocalyptic identity crisis. (Bear with me. I’ll get to the writing soon.)
So you start to experiment with different versions of yourself to see what sticks (preppy, goth, cheerleader, Bohemian, egg head, motor head, Dead head, pot head), successfully achieving one thing: a photo album that will make your future children wet their pants.
For me, however, I achieved one more thing: I learned not to be afraid of experimentation. Which was a good thing, because when I started writing seriously I had no idea what I was doing. I had a lot of raw materials: a great idea, a firm command of subject/predicate, and an overactive imagination, but no idea what to do with it. With no clear direction, it was like Jr. High déjà vu, all over again. So I did what I’d done before: Experiment.
My first inclination was to write what I thought was required by the amount of education I’d had – so I sat down to write serious, literary fiction, with the occasional attempt at moody poetry.
Feeling like a fraud, and inspired by family lore and my love of genealogy, I next took a stab at historical fiction. This was my first completed novel. It was about the 1912 women and children’s strike at the textile factories in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was . . . a good research project. And I did learn an important lesson: Fantastic research does not equal a compelling plot.
So, I tried commercial fiction set in my favorite location in the whole world: Lake Superior. This attempt taught me how to craft a beautiful scene. It also taught me that I had a weird perception of the world that didn’t translate well to adult fiction.
About the time I was giving up, I wrote a middle grade novel for my son. It came so easily, it was complete in less than two months and edited in less than four. It was the characters in that novel that caught the attention of my agent Jacqueline Flynn. I was close. Very close. I was almost to the point where I knew who I was as a writer and what I wanted to write.
While my MG novel was on submission, I tried my hand at young adult (YA) fiction and wrote LIES BENEATH, a revenge/ love story about murderous mermaids on Lake Superior. That’s where I hit the sweet spot and, as luck would have it, Random House agreed.
Now half way through the series (first book to hit shelves June 12, 2012), all the pieces are falling into place. I have the moodiness of my early poetry, plenty of Lake Superior research, the beautiful scenes of my commercial fiction, the characterization of my MG novel, and something that suits my voice so perfectly, it’s a joy to sit down to write YA every day.
Sometimes I think it’s a wonder it took me so long to figure things out. But that’s just it. Figuring out what kind of writer you are is a lot like figuring out who you are. It takes some trial and error. And error. But I think, in the end, it’s the journey that defines you more than the answer itself.
Photo by AndiTheStalkeress (Photobucket)