What Teen Writers Want To Know About Me
Today, I’m plotting out my reactions to a list of questions I’ve received from teen writers. I’ll be visiting with two Creative Writing classes at one of the local high schools in my town, later this week. Scanning the list of questions sent me down memory lane. I’ve been pulling out all my old yearbooks, thus all my fun pictures from the past scattered throughout this post.
Let’s dig right in.
What were you like in high school? (activities, etc,.) Did you go to college? What was your major?
High school was a period in my life where I needed to prove myself in some way. I had big dreams and places I wanted to go, I just kept changing my mind on the where. I wanted to try as much as a could without having to be too far into the spotlight. Stubborn, I didn’t tempt all of the classes and activities I should have because of fear of a teacher. Drama was one thing I’m sad I didn’t get involved with, or band. Today, as my son practices his piano diligently, I tell myself he can’t be a quitter like me. I wish I would have stuck out my base clarinet and marched in the band. Of course, I really wanted to play the drums, and so does my son. :0)
Because I had places to go (or so I always dreamed), I studied all the time and into the long hours of the night. Without cell phones, and only one phone in the house, I had lots of time to study. I filled the bathtub with old green couch cushions (my Grandma Shellenberger’s couch), crawled in, and sometimes, fell asleep with my head on the ledge. My worst subjects were Math and Chemistry. Geometry constantly challenged me. Acing biology was no problem because I could picture it, but chemistry and geometry? If I couldn’t see the reason behind certain formulas or the bigger world application, I couldn’t solve the equation. My teachers didn’t know how to answer my lengthy and complicated questions. My chemistry teacher, dedicated to helping me get the grade I wanted, stayed long hours with me in the lab—bless her heart.
I took every honors class I could squeeze into my semester, sometimes unsqueezing myself because I overloaded myself, like when I took A.P. Biology my Junior year. I ended up dropping it after the first semester because the textbook read like a foreign language—I couldn’t understand it at all. Determined and stubborn, I went to the Wichita State Library and checked out other easier to read Biology texts. The problem? I didn’t know what content would be on the test so I gave up. I jumped into Zoology and excelled.
My Favorite Activity…ah-hem…
The Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita was a huge part of my life. At thirteen, my friend and neighbor Leila and I started out as volunteers in a program called ChimpanZoo, initiated nationwide by Jane Goodall. We learned about animal behavior and spent hours observing chimpanzee interactions and documenting behaviors with old Tandy computers. To continue our studies in high school, we took Seminar, a class allowing us to go to the zoo and finish our two-year project. The topic? How Do Adult Females Effect Social Hierarchy. We finished the project my Sophomore year and presented it at the annual conference. We won an award for The Most Promising Study. I still can’t believe I met Jane Goodall.
I played sports, too.
Freshman year, I started out with Tennis, a family sport. I did ok. Sort of an on again off again athlete, I did well when my head was focused and in the game, but often, my head was focused on boys :0) I also ran cross-country so I could spend time with my friend Dawn after the tennis season ended. I remember qualifying for state and having to wolf down the Motrin for the worst case of shin splints. I didn’t do as well as I hoped, but I sure was proud to run that day. In the spring, I played soccer, but quit after Sophomore year. I didn’t want to be promoted to Varsity. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines. I wanted to play. I wanted to have fun.
Outside of sports, I helped in Student Senate for three years as the Homecoming artist. I created many of the templates for our winning wall designs. I remember making this big giant fuzzy Grizzly bear for the “Everything I do,” castle theme, inspired by Brian Adams. Finally, Senior year, someone persuaded me to run for Secretary on Student Senate. I didn’t think I’d win, but I did. I also participated in National Honors Society, National Art Honors Society, Creative Writing Club, German Club, the International Club, and I spent quite a bit of time with my Sophomore History Teacher/Creative Writing Club Sponsor, Mrs. LaFoy. She told me to major in history, to teach high school, and work on my writing on the side. I didn’t listen. I should have.
College wasn’t so simple.
In high school, I remember talking with my mom about many different professions. She’d said I shouldn’t be a high school counselor because I took problems to heart and made them my problems. We talked about teaching and she thought I’d be a great one. Because of her encouragement, I decided I would not be a teacher. :0) I always, always did the opposite whenever my mother suggested something. I decided a Game Warden would fit my personality. I loved nature. I wanted a career with a purpose and protecting animals and nature when they didn’t have voices for themselves, seemed like a natural fit. I also wanted to be tough since I was pretty tiny back then. A Game Warden seemed like a tough profession. My mom supported my decision and took me to a series of college campus visits: Montana State University, Colorado State, and Evergreen State in Washington. College came down to money. I couldn’t afford to leave Kansas without exceptional test scores, and I suffered from test anxiety. My ACT score was pretty terrible. I went to KU. I followed my boyfriend at the time, steered out of the profession of being a Game Warden and I picked nutrition. KU didn’t offer a Dietetics program. Professor Holmes, my Abnormal Psychology teacher, said he’d consider setting up an independent program for me in psychology and eating disorders, but the idea of a special program didn’t settle well with me. I transferred to K-State, the only school with that major and the best choice I ever made, in-state. I loved the campus. I loved, finally, rooming with my best friend T. Looking back I find myself frequently apologizing to her. You see, I am a rainbow colored Tasmanian devil (the Looney Tunes Version). Mess finds me no matter what I do. :0)
I joined the Dietetics club at K-State and quickly decided Dietetics wasn’t for me. Six years of school, and lots of difficult math pushed me elsewhere. I danced back to English and creative writing, a major truer to my heart. Teaching came up again. My father mentioned something to me and changed my mind. I switched to Landscape Architecture and mastered the art of pen and ink drawings. It was a perfect fit. A balance of the arts and the mind, but after a semester of little sleep and getting really sick because I couldn’t push myself like that, I switched again and wound up in Fine Arts after reading about Art Directors. I finished school in 2000 with a BFA, an emphasis in Graphic Arts, missing a second major in Advertising by three courses. Later, I completed my Master of Education—Literacy. This time I actually did want to be a teacher, but I couldn’t afford the student teaching in the end.
Next Question: Are you a “reader”? If so, what kind of literature do you read?
My favorite reads are imaginative reads. Fantasy. Science Fiction. I want to experience a new and different place. In middle school, I wrote to escape being me. I dreamed about far away magical lands and islands, and running away to these places. Today, I’ve found my balance with Urban Fantasy—real world places with a magical twist. I do read occasional fiction, but I usually skim it. Sarah Dressen is the only YA fiction writer I’ve read cover to cover. I have read all the classics I was required to read, but very few resonated with me. I did like Gertrude Stein, C.S. Lewis, and Willa Cather. I remember liking Ivanhoe my senior year in high school, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I admit, I am extremely fond of Shakespeare. The Tempest is one of my all time favorite plays—it’s one of his rare happier works. I DID not like reading Pride and Prejudice or the Great Gatsby in High School. Paradise Lost, well, I was definitely lost.
What story did you write and why?
Stage Fright, and I almost didn’t write it. I met J. Keller Ford, a friend/author online while blog hopping. She read a beta version of my novel and mentioned how great my voice was, how it related well to the YA audience. I told her I was frustrated with the publishing industry and she encouraged me to take part in her publisher’s short story contest. I looked over the theme and immediately started brainstorming. But then I got scared. I didn’t think I could switch from my novel and start something new. I took a couple of breaths and told myself, I’ll never know unless I try. While brainstorming with my coworker one day, we talked about all the times in our lives when time stopped. I remembered falling out of a tree house in the fifth grade, how the world slowed down until I hit the ground. Then I wondered how I could recreate that experience and sensation without getting the physical breath knocked out of my main character. Acting! I performed a piece from Romeo and Juliet in front of my Freshman English class. The fright I felt, wow! I trembled through my entire performance, hugging myself and staring just over the heads of my class as I recited my lines. Thus, Stage Fright came to fruition. And being from a relatively small town, Newton, Kansas, and moving to Wichita, a much larger one, I had a hard time fitting in. That transition provided some of the character background. Then I picked the name Hannah, borrowing the name from my sweet niece.
What is your method of writing?
The ideas never stop rolling around in my head. Even as I’m working on a book, another spin off idea pops up and I file it away for later. When I begin a story, I play with the image I see in my head. I see the beginning, middle, and end. Then I develop the characters. I interview them. I fill out every question about their lives, from what they eat, to their favorite color, to their family trees. Songs, I pick them next. Then I create a theme and lastly, the scenes. I love to graph each scene out in an excel spreadsheet. I want to know where each character is in each chapter, what the weather is like, what day of the week, the time, the main purpose for each character. I didn’t learn this method until recently with the help of L.S. Murphy. Believe me, the more you can see in your head as you write, the easier it is to eliminate redundancies(thank you Anna for this tip). Then, I freehand my chapters. As I diagram the beginning, I write out all the possibilities for character interactions, fragments of dialogue, and the end result. Lastly, I hit the laptop. Oh! Also, I don’t draft a first book very well. I don’t write from start to finish without catching my breath. I don’t have the time and I’m not comfortable moving past a chapter until I am happy with it. I reread my chapters and smooth them out. Then I go back and read the previous chapter until it flows together. I do however, let my characters transform the plot and remap my chapters. I tend to get trapped in dialogue sessions. They spin me in newer and different directions and alter my plot.
What does it take to be published? How can they get their stories published?
The competition is high. As a writer, sometimes we don’t know where our skill ranks. We finish something, we think it’s unbelievable, and I’ve faced this myself, sometimes people don’t always have the heart to tell us it’s not. You learn. You keep writing. You get better and read your old stuff and then you see the growth. Read everything. Read as your write to help push your own experiences. Write some realistic goals for yourself. Join Figment, a great writing network site. It’s a way to connect with YA writers all over the world. You can participate in writing contests, and some contests are sponsored by favorite authors. Follow your favorite authors. See what they write about. Many have tips. It’s all about growing, sticking with it, and learning your craft.
Once you have a bit of polish, a few designated beta readers and have carefully proofed your work, submit. Start with smaller presses. They move faster than the big name publishing houses. These days, you have to have an agent to get into the big presses. There is also a chance of getting wait-listed, from what I’ve heard.
How long does the publication process take?
My experience with J. Taylor Publishing has been less than a year from start to print. I found out in March 2013 they wanted my short story. The release date is December 2. Bigger publishing houses can double to triple that amount of time. Self-publishing is probably the fastest route. I am hearing wonderful things from my friends about Smashwords.
Wow! Lengthy! But it’s everything you ever wanted to know about my high school, my college choices, and how I write. Plus, you’ve seen a few of my memories. Thank you for steering the course right along with me. I had fun and if you also have a tip about publishing, I’d love to hear your thoughts to share with these teen writers.