About ten years ago, I wrote my first YA novel. It was dumb.
The main character was this kid named Miles who wrote a fantasy story about a vampire named Raphael Vedemicci that rode a dragon named Sylph. The kid’s actual real life sucked, so he made awesome things happen in his story to compensate for the disappointment.
I called it “The Vampire Diary.” I was deeply, unconsolably upset when “The Vampire Diaries” became an actual show on TV like a year later. I don’t know why. My book was a G-Darned disaster. I’m embarrassed to have said so much about it here, frankly. Readers deserve better.
Knowing how bad that first book was, I shamed myself into stopping fiction writing for years. And years and years. I’m an English teacher, so I buried my nose in grading papers and lesson planning and The Great Gatsby. I also tripped and fell into an opportunity covering the NBA for a website called HOOPSWORLD (later Basketball Insiders), so I poured my heart and soul into that for the better part of 12 years.
Somewhere along the line, I also discovered the great heaps of supplemental income I could make writing SEO blogs for small businesses, so I spent more of my precious daily writing time doing paid freelance work. Throw in all the work that goes along with my master’s degree in Teaching & Learning, and my life started looking like one of those glasses filled with so much water the liquid rises above the rim with overflowing surface tension. I wasn’t even thinking about writing fiction.
That changed when I attended the National Conference for Teachers of English in the fall of 2017. There’s a marketplace there where publishers give away ARCs and authors sign books, and I was given the opportunity to meet some truly amazing writers. Lois Lowry signed a copy of “The Giver” for me despite having tripped and fallen the night before, leaving her face bruised. Angie Thomas, deliriously happy over the success of “The Hate U Give,” signed a copy of her book for me, too, so happy to visit with the educators who had been enthusiastically recommending the novel to every teen they came across.
There were so many others. Katherine Applegate. Laurie Halse Anderson. Neal Shusterman. It was overwhelming.
I walked away from that conference with two huge totes full of free YA books for my classroom library and a fire in my belly to be the person on the other side of those autograph tables.
I don’t care about fame or money. That’s not what I mean. What I want more than anything is to know that high schoolers are reading my books and learning and feeling and discovering while they do. I want to have conversations with other teachers about the literary value of what I write. I want to reach young people outside of my tiny, rural school district.
When I got home from that conference, I could feel the stories dammed up in my soul, pressing on my chest to get out. I chewed on the idea of writing something centered around the life of a lone black student in a predominantly white farm school district, and that spiraled into the concept for “Die Enormous,” which I wrote in under two months. I made a New Years resolution to finish the first draft of the book by the end of the school year, and I was done in 55 days. I couldn’t sleep thinking about the story, so I’d get out of bed at midnight and go write until my eyes physically would not stay open. I was obsessed.
When I got toward the end of the book, writing the climactic penultimate chapter at one in the morning, I cried. It was weird. My body convulsed and shook while I laughed and tears poured down my face in streams. Maybe I was proud of myself for finishing the book. Maybe I was proud of my characters for doing the thing they wanted so badly to do throughout the book. Maybe I saw a piece of the 17-year-old version of myself in those characters, and their catharsis was a DeLorean trip back to 1999, fixing parts of my past I guess I didn’t realize needed fixing.
I’ve never felt so good in my life. Nothing in my professional life has ever satisfied me the way I way I felt that night. I’ve seen so many authors talk about writing for themselves. I get it now. I really do.
The manuscript for “Die Enormous” is done. At least, it’s as done as I can make it without paying more than I can afford for a professional editor, and I’m onto my next idea. I’ve got a whole Word doc full of them, and I can see my next ten years laid out, writing new books every nine months whether they hit or not.
Something tells me they’ll hit, though. I’ve come a long way from “The Vampire Diary.” I’ve learned so much about craft. I’ve read so many books. I’ve gotten to know so many great high school kids. I’m ready, and Pitch Wars can help me clear the hurdles I’m unable to clear on my own.
No more disasters. It’s time to prove I can be a G-Darned success.