My Author Story -- "In a shot glass"
When I was eight years old, I saw the movie Titanic in theaters.
I know what you're thinking, and... yes. Yes, there are so many questionable things about that statement. *Why was an eight-year-old watching Titanic? Did you even know what you were witnessing when the steamy car scene came up? Who allowed this?*
(*1. I can't remember, but it was a movie everyone was talking about and looked beautiful from a cinematic standpoint so maybe someone saw some merit in my seeing it.
2. I sort of knew, because my parents had been open with me about ~the goings on between a man and woman~, but I still never expected to see it on a huge screen like that.
3. I think mostly my mom allowed it, but I went with an aunt, and I don't think anyone involved expected everything I ended up seeing.)
You're also probably wondering what any of this has to do with a writing blog. I have an answer for that, too. You see, that film got me into writing.
An odd correlation, but let me explain.
My eight-year-old brain was stricken by this film in every way. I found it visually stunning, emotional, fascinating (even at a young age I was a history buff), and incredibly romantic. Of course, I didn't have much to go on in the area of romance, but from what I managed to figure out, I fell in love with. After some asking, my parents, in an even more questionable move, bought me the film on VHS so I could watch it over and over again. And readers, I wore those two tapes out.
(This is not my photo... my box set is long gone. :( But this is what it looked like. DVDs had just come into existence and still weren't widely used, so I had this baby. For some reason, I'm laughing hysterically at the concept of this. Anyway.)
This film not only fueled my still-young love for history and romance, but also my obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio. (I was definitely a victim of the Leo-mania pandemic of the late 90s, and the man still holds a special place in my heart today.) I began writing my own version of a story of star-crossed lovers who are total opposites at some point in the past, and at age 10, I finished my first short story. It was called "My Best Friend".
Yes, I know -- Riveting. Original. Astounding.
Set in the 1950s, it was the story of a young girl named Lucy and boy whose name I can't remember. She was white and he was Latino. Actually, now that I think about it, his name might have been Ricky... I was also a huge fan of I Love Lucy. I had odd tastes for a child.
The story goes that Lucy and probably Ricky grew up together as best friends, fell in love, and then one of them -- I can't for sure recall which one, but I believe it was Lucy -- died tragically. She died in probably Ricky's arms, sort of à la The Notebook before The Notebook existed, only she died young and not old. It was all so very tragic and romantic. I loved writing it, loved imagining their world, even if much of it was borrowed from movies and other media I'd seen before. It was my first foray into telling a story, creating something and writing it down.
I was hooked on storytelling after that.
I'd also dabbled in verse before; for a fourth-grade assignment, my teacher had everyone in my class to choose an animal and write a poem about it. I chose the great grey owl.
Want to read it? I thought you did.
The great grey owl, lumbering through the day
He flies about, he swoops and sways
He sits in his tree and hoots away
At night, by the moonlight, he eyes his prey
And swoops down and gobbles it up and...
Back in his tree he goes and stays
Waiting... maybe for you, I say
For some reason, I've never forgotten that one. I was told it was pretty impressive coming from a nine-year-old.
I also wrote a poem about my life called... wait for it... "My Life". I joke about its title, but this poem was actually written as therapy, as my family had been going through a turbulent time. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that my mother, who has passed away, was an alcoholic for most of my life. I grew up watching her struggle with this addiction, learning to understand what I was witnessing largely on my own, processing things in a way only a child can. After my mom lost her job because of her addiction and we lost our house to foreclosure, I wrote "My Life" as a way to express my feelings. One stanza read:
...I don't know where to begin
I'm not as outgoing, I know that it's showing
And I'm back where I started again
When a small-time anthology (the name of which I can't remember now) published this poem, I became hooked on the idea of people actually reading my work, hearing my stories and getting a glimpse of my creativity, falling in love with my work the way I'd fallen in love with Titanic. At this point, writing was so many things for me: fun, therapeutic, addictive, and now a way to be seen. A career option.
I was an introvert who liked a certain type of attention. I think that's the way to describe all writers. Author John Green explained it in a great way when he said, "[Writing is] a profession for introverts who wanna tell you a story but don't wanna make eye contact while telling it." I loved being alone, but as an only child with a large personality, when I decided to put myself out there, everyone knew it. When I discovered I had some talent for writing, and that I could turn that talent into a strength and that strength into a way of being known, I was thrilled.
Even so, I didn't write much creatively between junior high and the end of high school. I became hooked on the idea that I would need to break into something a little more practical first, so I joined my high school's yearbook staff and wrote and photographed for them for two years. When multiple family members told me I had the personality and looks for television, I figured something like journalism would be a good way to write, be known, and also have a secure career going forward.
When I applied to colleges in 2006, I sought all the ones that had a good communications program. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte appealed to me the most, both because of its program's reputation and its location -- Charlotte is the largest and most populous city in my state, more well-known by nationals and internationals than even our capital, and it's the entertainment mecca of North Carolina. I figured I would move to the city at some point, write for TV, a newspaper, or a magazine, and pursue creative writing on the side. It was a safe, practical plan.
At freshman orientation every naive, bright-eyed new student received a badge with their name and major on it. Funnily enough, mine mistakenly said "English".
I remember noting how wrong it was several times, but otherwise I didn't make a big stink. Clearly I never changed it.
I spent my first two years pursuing Pre-Comm, which required I take gen-ed courses like politics and economics (*shudder*) and speech writing (not the worst, but tiresome after a few weeks). I struggled through these courses, welcoming the slight reprieve of my English and journalism classes. And it was focusing on these classes that started to change my mind.
As I've mentioned in a previous post, I began the first big creative writing project of my life during my sophomore year, and I became pretty obsessed with completing it. As my interest in creative writing grew, I became less interested in my journalism classes. I liked the freedom to be "flowery" (an actual criticism of a news article I wrote).
Everything came together at the same time. My first semester of junior year, I signed up for Intro to Communications. It was the final class you needed to complete the transition from Pre-Comm to a full-on Communications major, and the class was huge, containing maybe 150 students. I wasn't intimidated by the size. I wasn't intimidated by the huge textbook. I wasn't intimidated by the promise of all the reading I would have to do. I wasn't even intimidated by my professor as he bragged about the 50% failure rate of his course. (He was charming.)
But one day, I sat in this class taking notes on my laptop, staring at the whiteboard ahead and envisioning the career I would take on with a Communications degree. My top choices were broadcast journalism, photojournalism, or public relations.
As I was thinking, I clicked on the other tab I had open and put a few more finishing touches on my novel, the one I began my sophomore year. I was almost done editing it. I was very proud of it. I had written an entire novel, and every moment of writing it had been a rush.
And I looked up after a few minutes, tuning back in to this professor droning on about... I honestly didn't care. I didn't care about any of it anymore. All I cared about was my novel, about reading, about my English classes, about creating, about being a novelist.
So I opened a third tab, logged into my school's website, and changed my major to English.
Like. Just like that.
Then I called my mom after class was over and told her what I'd done. She was... not angry? But she was a little nervous. "What are you going to do with an English degree?" she asked. She was the first of many who would ask me that over the next two years.
A month later, I finished my first novel. At the end of the semester, I became part of that 50% failure rate my professor had bragged about. Way to contribute to the statistic, Bianca.
The next semester, I took up a host of linguistics, literature, history, and fiction writing classes, in addition to my journalism and Spanish classes. (I forgot to mention I was a double minor, the other being Spanish. Ahora sabes.) After failing my first ever college course the previous semester, I ended my junior year with excellent grades that put me on UNC Charlotte's Chancellor's List. It was proof I had taken the right path.
I spent the next few years seeking advice and feedback on my novel. My first venture into publishing, I had no idea what I was doing and ended up contacting a vanity publisher. They offered to get my novel in print -- for $4,000. I was very confused. Weren't they supposed to be paying me? After some research and speaking with two professors of mine who happened to be published authors, I found out there are several different ways to get published, and the one I had stumbled upon wasn't... the most legit.
So then I started querying literary agents.
And they were not interested.
They had no reason to be, either. I was a twenty-one-year-old woman with no writing credits, no online presence, and the only attributes I'd listed about myself was that I had taken a college-level fiction writing course or two. Believe it or not, none of those things make you an exciting contender out of up to thousands of other queries an agent will receive yearly. I didn't know that, of course.
Also, I was trying to get a young adult paranormal romance novel published... which was what everyone else at the time was trying to get published, too. The market was saturated, I didn't know how to hook anyone, and I was pushing a weak, poorly-worded submission where I even admitted I was seeking representation for my "very green" efforts.
10 years later I still cringe about this part
Eventually I shelved the story, realizing it didn't have a chance in that day's market unless I was already an established novelist. I took an unpaid internship at my college's literary arts magazine, hoping to gain experience and even get a short story published in the next edition.
During my time with the magazine, I submitted a short story called "Mannequin" under a pen name. Luke, my protagonist, a bartender at an upscale lounge, narrates his experiences with seeing the same woman nearly every night. She comes in with different men and is dressed differently, using a variety of wigs, makeup, outfits, and even accents to pull off different personas. She fools everyone except Luke, and he begins to speculate why she's doing this: Is she running from someone? Is she running from herself? Are her intentions malevolent? Is she just trying to have fun? Is she crazy? When Luke eventually helps the woman out of a sticky situation, she realizes he can see her for who she really is, and writes a quick note of thanks on a napkin, signing her real name.
The story made it through the first 3 rounds of elimination. I was psyched... no one knew it was me, and I was getting a lot of positive and usefully critical feedback. To be present at the final round of eliminations and hear unfiltered critique about my work was eye-opening, encouraging, and crazy. Unfortunately, my story didn't make it into the magazine, but at least I knew why, and I totally agreed with the reasons! I appreciated the experience, especially when faced with the real-world frustrations of rarely getting a reason for rejection from literary agents -- who, to be fair, have no time to provide feedback to every single query they receive. It's just not possible. I get it. It sucks, but I get it.
After graduating college still with no major publishing credits under my belt, I started brainstorming new, fresh ideas that would get me noticed. It took me another two years to realize no idea was fresh or new enough to get me published without me doing additional work. I had to perfect my craft, make my writing stronger, get some professional feedback, and get with it on social media. I didn't do the social media part for a long time, because I felt with no writing credits there was no point. My ignorance and ego were really fighting for a top spot, there.
I completed my next project, We Are Eternal, after a month-long, inspiration-fueled writing mania. I completed another project, Way Down Low, a month later, in similar fashion. I was working part time at a library, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I also had a desire to get better, and I could fully imagine for the first time an actual career as a writer.
Life happened -- good life, thankfully, consisting of a marriage and a new baby -- and I let the projects sit for a while. When I decided to edit and try to market my work, I picked up We Are Eternal first; considering what I was going through with my own mother at the time, I felt like visiting with Olive, my main character, and fleshing out her struggles. I pitched it to a few agents without any luck and attended a few Writer's Digest webinars about marketability and self-editing before realizing that with my limited experience, I should probably be trying to appeal directly to publishers. Turns out I was right, as my story was picked up my a small publisher in January 2018. From my first time watching Titanic in theaters with my aunt at 8 years old,
to keeping several diaries and journals,
to writing my first story
and the poetry,
my stints on the high school yearbook staff and the college literary arts magazine,
to finishing my first novel,
to finally getting published,
and all the stumbling blocks in between,
I've grown exponentially as a writer and enjoyed the whole ride. I'm just as proud of that little girl who wrote "My Best Friend" as I am of the author of We Are Eternal. My story probably sounds like many other writers' stories out there.
Theirs probably doesn't begin with a Titanic obsession, though.