By KJ Martin
I’m halfway through my year writing as a full-time author and I can honestly say I understand what Joseph Conrad meant by his quote from Heart of Darkness, “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
He was right. Writing is hard. Guess what else I’ve learned?
I absolutely love being a full-time author.
When I first started voicing my desire to take a year off in order to focus on finishing my novel, I received lots of reactions:
You are so naïve.
You know it takes years to become a writer worthy of the publishing world.
Very few writers make a living writing. It’s a shot in the dark profession.
This idea of yours is just a coping mechanism for letting yourself get burned out at work.
The older women get, the harder it will be to find a real job if you wait too long. Age discrimination is real, girlfriend!
And let’s not leave out this gut punch: Do you really want to mess with your peak earning years?
With every hesitation and tale of caution, my resolve hardened until taking a year off became an experience that I desperately wanted for myself. I was born into a family of storytellers. While it takes skill to deliver a good oral story, I’ve learned that storytellers become story writers, when they take the time to hone their craft. One cannot simply be born to write. Story writers must develop the skills to shape a story that will transcend the four walls of a family cabin and bear it worthy to travel to the four corners of the earth. So now was my time to write. Not after the twins go to college or after I retire. Right now. As my therapist once observed, “I had books in me.”
Thankfully, by the time I officially announced that I really WAS taking a year off to write, I’d already fretted about the above unknowns over several glasses of wine and in numerous lengthy therapy sessions. When I completed my time in sorrow’s kitchen custom building my own impenetrable body armor for the fearless writing fool, I had cooked up a less than rock solid response. It was simple, I would say. This is what I needed to do to write the best novel I could. I wasn’t going into this totally blind, I told myself. I had already spent eight months finishing the first draft. Wasn’t that the hardest part (insert maniacal laughter here)? I wanted to see what I could really do if I had more time.
Once my honest reply went airborne, something happened. The look in many of my friends and family members’ eyes became borderline curious, even excited. You know that look. The one we give each other when our wild friend grabs a roll of toilet paper at your sleepover and whispers that she is going to prank the neighborhood crush two doors down. So, are you coming or not?
Once I announced my decision, I stayed calm by following the list of next steps I had written down. I gave plenty of notice at my job. I wasn’t a penniless, young professional anymore. While money didn’t grow on trees, after a twenty-five-year career, I had some options. We sat down and came up with a family financial plan for the year that included allocating time and resources to research the book’s setting in Norway, attend a national writer’s conference, and hire a developmental editor.
To help stay mentally motivated during times of self-doubt (of which there have been many), I sought out inspiring stories of women like me who were also told they couldn’t “DO IT” – whatever IT was – like start a company, get published, earn a degree, write songs, whatever. I found an undeniable power in hearing and reading about their struggles and successes. Their stories made me feel braver, sit up taller, and work harder. They did it. I could, too.
That was then. Now, six months of writing full-time has passed. What do I have to show so far?
I spent January, aka the first month of my year to write, learning to build my author website and writing a few blog articles. I found my voice. I interviewed youth in my chosen genre’s age range and selected character influencers. I presented at several online writer’s workshops and discovered an audience hungry for information beyond hobby-writing skill development workshops. I expanded my list of fans to include all ages.
February found me digging into major second draft revisions. I initially set a goal to complete my second draft by spring break. With time to finally spend on real world-building, the depth of my plot development greatly improved which, by default, increased my workload. I soon realized how much time authors spend on character development, scene construction, and story arcs. Apparently, I had been digging in a sandbox in the middle of a desert. Whole chapters were removed and stored in another document. Scenes cut. Characters removed and added. I soon discovered I needed more structure in my approach to writing, or the book would swallow me whole.
As March came in like a lamb, I was desperately searching through recommendations for writing programs and processes. Since writing in a basic word document seems to work for me, I decided to resort to detailed chapter outlines. My writing shack walls now looked like they’ve been attacked by dozens of colorful sticky notes. I was getting invitations to go running and skiing with friends during the week, thanks to my new flexible work schedule. Since I could write from anywhere, I was also able to attend more of my twin’s activities. I met their friends. I met their friends’ parents. Before long, a new community started to form around me.
April brought warmer temperatures, so writing in the story shack became more frequent. I had an escape space now, which was becoming critical. Not so much because others were keen on interrupting me, but because I soon realized that I was my own worst distraction from writing. I’d hear the dryer stop or notice that the floors could use a good scrub and voila! Hours passed that could have been spent writing. I learned to teach my kids to do their own laundry and schedule cleaning time around my writing schedule. If I didn’t take my new job seriously, no one else would either.
The month of May saw me still in the daily slog of my second draft rewrite. I was also planning for my Norway research trip with the family and to attend the conference in San Francisco in July. When I realized I needed to rewrite the entire climax scenes of my novel, I used the chapter-by-chapter sticky note tool to reorganize the plot. It worked beautifully! As several of my novel scenes involve outdoor adventure sports such as snowboarding, I took a trip to backcountry ski North Sister, about an hour away. I returned a few days later feeling inspired by the stunning mountain snowscape, but having also torn my ACL. With the Norway trip less than a month away, I needed reassurance that I could still physically make the trip, which included a 35-mile backpacking trip across the remote mountain plateau of Hardangervidda. My doctor shook his head. “How are you with pain?” he asked. “I’m good,” I replied with more confidence than I felt.
June was really busy, with our twins graduating from eighth grade, end of the year parties, summer activity sign ups, doctor visits, and prep for our ten-day Norway trip on the horizon. I was experiencing unrest about my climax rewrite, so I worked on several other scenes that didn’t require as much focus. I researched developmental editors in my genre and found one who would be presenting at the conference in July. I signed up for her workshop and marked the date. June 26th found us boarding a bus in Oslo bound for Hardangervidda National Park. I took pictures and copious notes of the twin’s reactions to traveling over the vast plateau and into the narrow, steep valleys. I observed them fording rivers and climbing rocky cliffs. The last couple of days were spent in Arendal, near the childhood home of my grandmother. There, I visited local bookstores and spoke with the owners about my book. Some of the bookstores had been open for decades. In return, they shared stories and local town history with me.
I’m now halfway through July (month seven) and am looking back on our trip to Norway in amazement. I actually did it! I’ve started sketching the characters in my novel to help me visualize the action scenes better. With my rewrite of the second draft plot climax now in full swing, I look ahead to the San Fransisco Writers Conference next week with the goal of enlisting the help of a seasoned developmental editor and industry advice on when to send the draft out to my beta readers.
In addition to the previous revelations, I’d like to add these “aha” moments to my list of lessons learned:
- I have filled four notebooks cover to cover with world building research notes for reference.
- I am my own biggest distraction.
- I am happier.
- I don’t complain about work. Ever.
- The more I learn about writing, the less I realize I knew in the first place. I’m so glad I didn’t know that at the start!
- I am on track to complete the first book by the end of December (ready to query agents, I hope).
- I am not giving up.
Looking back, the decision to take a year off to write was about reconnecting with an old dream. These past several years during covid have left me feeling disconnected from many of my friends and loved ones. I craved the interpersonal connections that I hoped reaching out for support to write this book would provide. Since the novel has a cousin and grandparent theme, I’ve reached out to engage my nieces and nephews as character influencers. This effort led to more middle schoolers asking to be involved in the book project. I now have an eager group of beta readers educating me on what they would like to see written in the books they read.
After six months, a community has formed to support me. I do not pretend to understand the impact my decision to take a year off and write is having on everyone else, but I know it has lit a creative spark in several who now get together to write and illustrate their own stories. I am reminded of a lesson I learned long ago by listening to my grandmother; when stories are told, dreams become possible. Over time, this cycle inspires the next generation to explore the impossible.
To quote author Sarah Dressen from her novel Along for the Ride, “It’s the things you fight for and struggle with before earning that have the greatest worth.” That’s why I write. I’m driven to write an unforgettable book series that my thirteen-year-old self can’t put down. Through the school of hard knocks, I’m learning that there’s no better time than now to chase a dream.
If you could pursue a dream, what would it be? Feel free to email me your responses!