I’m not sure exactly when I got hooked on writing. As a child I began experimenting with drawing pictures and adding a few words of story to them, as many children do. At the age of 9, I wrote a little poem about Halloween and drew a picture to go with it. My schoolteacher showed it to our principal, who showed it to a neighbor who was an editor for a major newspaper in the area, and the editor asked if he could buy the right to publish it. I got a silver dollar and a bit of local fame, but I can’t say that I suddenly felt a burning desire to publish.
Yet on a psychological level, I think that it’s important to get some success early on. It doesn’t have to be much, just a little praise or encouragement. This lets a budding author know that there is some hope, so that he or she continues to write and build up necessary writing skills.
In any case, rather than learn to write, I instead spent time learning to read. As a child, I was interested in mythology, but I was probably more interested in science and history. I read voraciously in nonfiction. Oh, in school I did read a few fiction books when I had to, things like Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye, but I didn’t seek out fiction books voluntarily.
It wasn’t until I was sixteen that a friend introduced me to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I had a tough time getting through it, until I was nearly a hundred pages in, and then I got hooked. I read it and re-read it, then began seeking out books that were similar, searching for fantasy. I cleaned out our libraries at school and in our small town, then went to Corvallis, Oregon and began reading at the library there, but couldn’t find much in the way of fantasy, so I began shopping at what may have been the first fantasy bookstore in America. The Grassroots Bookstore in Corvallis had a little sign advertising it as a fantasy bookstore. It carried fantasy novels back in the 1970s before the genre of fantasy was discovered by other bookstores. (While there were fantasy novels before 1977, it wasn’t until Terry Brooks had a runaway hit with The Sword of Shannara that the bookstores began to take notice. Suddenly the “science fiction” sections in the bookstores became the “science fiction and fantasy” sections.)
So I began to devour fantasy novels—everything from Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness, to McCaffrey’s Pern, to T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and so on. I was completely indiscriminate. If it had a fantasy angle, I read it, and I averaged about three novels per week. In no time at all I had read every fantasy novel that I could find, and then branched out to science fiction and mythology.
As I read, there were some authors that I felt in awe of—people like Tolkien and Fritz Leiber. But with many of the authors, I began to notice . . . minor flaws in their writing, and sometimes major flaws. So I was in awe of some tales, while I felt a “healthy degree of contempt” for others. By that I mean, I could look at some stories and think, I could do better than that. I suspect that most budding authors will realize on some inner level that they have the potential to raise the bar with their own writing.
Within a year, I had read so many fantasy novels that I began to think of my own stories. My father owned a little grocery store in Monroe, Oregon, where I worked as a meat cutter in the afternoons and on the weekends. One day, I began telling one of my stories to Paul Toups, a fellow worker, and after a couple of days he said, “You should take all of this shit and put it in a book!” And an idea was born. I thought, Yeah, that’s probably how Tolkien started, and C.S. Lewis, and Charles Dickens, and all of the rest. They just started writing. . . .
And so the next day I read through the newspapers and found that the price of a typewriter was more than I could afford. But I discovered a used typewriter shop in Corvallis, scraped some money together, and went out and bought a used electric typewriter, then began to write my first story.
I worked on it in secret, as so many writers often do. I typed late at night in my bedroom, and I hid the manuscript pages under my mattress so that no one—not even my parents—would know what I was up to. The typewriter of course would be a dead giveaway if it were left out, so I hid it in a box, under some clothes, and kept it in my closet.
It didn’t take long for my parents to find out what I was up to, though. I came into my room one day and my mother was changing the sheets to my bed. She reached underneath the mattress to tuck in the sheet, and to my utter horror she felt the manuscript. A frown washed over her face, and she grabbed my manuscript, and said, “Aha, what is this!” Then she triumphantly pulled out the first six chapters of my novel.
I’m sure that she thought it was a porn magazine, but then she looked at it in bafflement and said, “What is this?” So my secret came out. I was a closet author, working on a novel.
I didn’t let her see it, of course. It wasn’t finished. In fact, it never would get finished. Because when I got to chapter ten, I decided that it was too much like Tolkien’s work—with were-bears and orcs in it—and I wanted to do something more original.
So I started a second novel, called A Wizard in Half-light, about a young man who goes to a high school for magicians. I worked hard on it for a couple of months and got to the climactic scene where my young wizard uses his vast magical powers to destroy his high school, and discovered that I had written myself into a hole. There was no way that he could redeem himself after that, even if he did destroy the undead wizard who had bedevilled his world for centuries.
At that point, I realized something: If I was going to be a writer, I had to do more than just play around with it. I needed to actively study stories and learn how to write.
Until then, I had been reading widely, but I hadn’t been studying other novels, or studying craft. I looked around for resources to try to learn how to write. I ordered some writing magazines, and then I went to the local college, where I purchased used copies of several books on writing. I took them home and read each one, looking for the secret to great writing, but didn’t find it.
So I read each one again, and again, and again.
I learned a lot of little things, hints of how to write better, but there was no “great secret.” Instead, there were just lots of little clues.
But there was a change in me, in the way that I approached writing. I began to wonder about writing, about how to go about constructing great stories. I began to think about what I was reading, to tear each story apart. I began reading much more widely, and approaching the art more methodically.
And little did I know, that I had found the great secret of writing. You never attain perfection. You just keep approaching it.
Author Adrienne Monson is preparing to finish her Blood Inheritance trilogy, with the final book being released next month. In the meantime, she has a giveaway going on, where you can enter to win the second book in the series, Defiance.