Darby Karchut is an award-winning author, teacher, and a compulsive dawn greeter. She lives in Colorado with her husband and owns more backpacks than purses. As she should. Her YA books include GRIFFIN RISING (2012 Children’s Literary Awards Gold Medal, 2011 Sharp Writ YA Book of the Year), GRIFFIN’S FIRE (2011 Readers Favorite Bronze Medal for YA Fantasy), and GRIFFIN’S STORM (November 2012). Her debut Middle Grade novel, FINN FINNEGAN (Spencer Hill Press) will be released March 2013. The next book in the Finnegan series, GIDEON’S SPEAR (Spencer Hill Press) will be released February 2014. She has also co-authored a non-fiction book for teens entitled MONEY AND TEENS with her husband, author Wes Karchut. Visit the author at her website: www.darbykarchut.com
How I Became A Writer
One day, the idea of writing my own story, with my own characters, ambushed me while I was running in the foothills near my house. A story about a young hero rising above a brutal past with the help of others along the way, with whiffs of fantasy and history and philosophy and even a love story. Maybe something with … with … with angels.
Man, I really should have run faster.
For I already had a career. I taught, and still teach, social studies at a junior high school, and during the summers, my husband and I have been building a modest cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A full life. A happy life. A life with some bloody down time!
But the idea of writing my own story would not die. I kept thinking about writing a book. Which is all good and well, except for one problem.
I had never written anything like a book.
I had never written a short story.
I had never written creative fiction (except a few pieces of fan fiction)
I had never written a song or an epitaph or a poem.
Nothing. Nada. Zippo.
I had no idea what I was doing.
Now don’t misunderstand me. All my life, I have consumed books. I have read hundreds of books, thousands of books. Mostly fantasy, but also historical fiction, chick lit, biographies, world history, philosophy, science fiction, and young adult books. A metric ton of young adult books.
If my home library was a continent, it would be Asia.
It was similar to having an eating disorder. There’s an old saying among writers: you read and you read, and then one day you throw up a book. So to purge myself, I decided to write one, too. About a troubled teen angel named Griffin, and his steadfast father-mentor, Basil.
Because my life was getting just too easy and laid back.
Damn Calvinistic streak.
As I wrote my first book, I did everything wrong. I had two characters, but no plot. No plot as no beginning, no middle and certainly no ending. It was like building a house on an empty lot and starting out by purchasing a coffee table and an ice cream scooper.
But I took advantage of the Internet, my local Borders Bookstore, and other writers, and I learned and practiced the noble craft as I wrote. And rewrote. And rewrote. And rewrote.
Then I broke the rules to make the story better. Everything is about the Story.
As well known author, Toni Morrison, once said, “Write the book you want to read.”
Best advice ever for any author.
I think I toyed with the idea of writing a book for years, but only on a subconscious level. I was a child of J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many other classics, so I knew if I ever did write one, it would be a fantasy.
As I said at the beginning, I had never written a story before. Oh, I’ve written one master thesis, various reports, and a bazillion lesson plans, but I never created a tale, populated with good guys and bad guys having adventures. I did not like or dislike writing. To me, it was simply a means to other ends.
Then, one day in late June 2009, several months after posting my first fan fiction piece, I happened to re-read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. It is a curious little text in which he explains the basic tenets of Christianity through a series of letters between a senior devil and his apprentice. In the Introduction, Lewis briefly mentions that the opposite of devils are, of course, angels. Warrior angels. Butt-kicking angels. Not the poufy little cherubs that make me believe childhood obesity began during the Victorian era, but real soldiers of Heaven.
I liked the idea. Of celestial warriors. In fact, I found myself wishing Lewis or someone had written such a book. About an angel teaching and training his young apprentice while fulfilling their roles as guardians of humankind, but with an urban twist.
So, off to Poor Richard’s, my favorite local used bookstore, for such a book. Searching, searching, searching. Rats. Nothing.
While digging around, careful not to get splinters from the plywood shelves, I came across a battered paperback on angelic lore from various cultures. And there it was. From the High Middle Ages in Europe came a description of a lower caste of angels said to control the four elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. Sounded like Jedi knights with halos.
I was hooked. Fate decided that I needed to write the book I was searching for.
But I didn’t want goody-goody angels. I even wrote, in huge letters across the top of my first page: “No Touched by An Angel allowed.” I wanted a down-to-earth type of angels who did the mundane, day-to-day guardianship stuff the other angels were too busy to take care of, with a strong emphasis on the delightful friction that occurs when the everyday rubs up against the supernatural.
And I knew the story must incorporate a master and apprentice, knight and squire, father and son type of relationship. The archetypical champion and his wise sage had intrigued me even before Joseph Campbell made me aware of the hero’s journey.
So I began writing what was to become my first book, Griffin Rising, that weekend; a tale about a young apprentice angel with serious self esteem issues and his coming of age under the tutelage of a larger-then-life mentor, interwoven with a charming love story between Griffin and the mortal girl next door.
And thus angst-ridden Griffin and noble Basil and sweet Katie and everyone else in the book started talking.
To me. In my head.
All the time.
Like children when you are trying to make a phone call.
Since my angels (or as I sometimes referred to them after a long writing session, the boys) had both their feet on the ground (so to speak), I decided they should belong to sub-caste of angels, the very lowest of the lows. Terra Angeli: Latin for Earth Angels. Now the belief in angelic beings can be found in many of the world’s religions and I borrowed freely from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. My Prologue gave a nod to the early Christian writing The Celestial Hierarchy and with my background in anthropology, any and all world cultures were grist for my mill, to be sure.
For example, the Terra Angeli were inspired by classical Sparta, the Irish myths of Cuchulainne, Finn and the Red Branch, the European feudal system, the Plains Indians of North America, and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War Two (and there’s a tip of the hat to Foyle’s War.)
The Four Months
For the next four months, I wrote and re-wrote the first few chapters a dozen times. I knew I wanted it to be a character driven book, but I soon realized my characters needed something to do, by golly! Or it would simply be one lengthy Seinfeld episode.
After wailing to my husband that my book was stagnating like three o’clock coffee at Starbuck’s, he dragged me off to the Holy of Holies.
Otherwise known as our local Borders Bookstore.
“Look,” he said, gesturing to an entire rack of how-to-write magazines. “You could read a few articles about plot. Have a cup of coffee while jotting down pointers, then put the magazine back and pick up another. Voila! Free education for the price of a latte.”
I naturally pitched a fit about “the experts” stifling my creativity and that Real Writers learn by struggling on their own (preferably in a quaint cottage overlooking a pastoral scene or deep in SoHo in a hip martini joint) and blah, blah, blah.
When I finished, he nodded like he understood, then said, “Yeah. Whatever,” grabbed the nearest magazine and headed for the cafe. Stumping after him, I imagined tripping him from behind and sending him face first into a rack of greeting cards. Too bad he’s agile.
After ordering our coffees, we found a table by the window (because a view of a parking lot is always so motivational) and I opened the magazine to the table of contents. Okay. There was an article about how to outline the plot of your novel. And it didn’t seem too long. I even knew and respected this particular author. Fine, I thought. I’ll read the damn thing. But don’t expect me to follow her advice. I’m not some lemming jostling for a front row position.
You know. That whole creative-stifling thing.
But, by golly, there were some rock solid, down to earth, kind-of-obvious-if-you-bothered-to-pull-your-stubborn-head-out-of-your-butt ideas that made sense. And the author even added a caveat at the end declaring that any advice should always be taken cautiously. Find your way of planning or outlining or story boarding or whatever. Any method works as long as it works for you.
I HATE it when my husband is right.
I started going to Borders at least once a week. And I read every writer’s magazine, devoured every article. And I started seeing a pattern. Author after author, editor after editor, agent after agent kept repeating the same things: compelling plot, strong characters, crisp dialogue and find your voice.
And I began to develop a writing process. I would write a few chapters, then stop and study the craft of writing. Then I’d go back and re-write them. Then plow ahead a few more chapters and repeat. I wasted a lot of time, but it was perfect just-in-time learning for me. I would study another rule or technique, and apply it immediately. Not just practice it on a short story, but put it to use on the book I was passionate about.
This process quickly morphed into reading every blog, every website, every e-article about the art and craft of writing fiction. Learn, learn, learn. Apply, apply, apply. Fall asleep thinking about the book, the characters whispering in my ears like creepy little stalkers.
All this while teaching junior high school full time. Talk about incredible field research for a young adult author! I would stand around and soak up teenage dialogue, often making notes on my hand if paper wasn’t available.
Luckily, I had a friend, another faculty member at my school, who read one of my earliest rough drafts. She was always gracious about my pulling her to one side between classes to ask her opinion, although she looked a bit worried when I asked her, very earnestly, one day: “Do you think Griffin would wear a pink polo shirt?” (Griffin, of course, being my sixteen year old protagonist.)
At least I didn’t ask the boxers versus briefs question. That would have been awkward.
Along the Way and Away
The magic of writing is that some days I wrote the story, and a lot of days, I simply took dictation while the characters lived out their lives for me. My subconscious came up with scenes I would never have conceived of, even on my best days. Those were wonderful days.
Known to writers as The Flow. It would be my drink of choice if we could ever bottle it.
Then there were days when every word written was covered in blood and spit. I would struggle with a sentence, a scene, a character, heck, a comma! But those were muscle building days. When I was literally clubbing my book to work; when I fought to use every little trick and skill I had recently picked up. Smashing the craft into my brain and then out onto my work.
Writing is gut-busting, molar-grinding hard work.
And, oh, so sweetly satisfying when it goes well.
Obsessive does not even begin to describe my behavior during those months. Thank goodness, my husband, who is an award winning artist, understood the creative drive. But I had to learn to balance my career and my family while writing. For the sake of my marriage as well as my sanity. (Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. The best advice I can give anyone attempting to write a book: turn off the television. It’s all drivel anyway and you might as well be working.)
So I trained myself to write whenever I had a fifteen minute block of time (or longer). Even if it was just a few sentences. Lunch time, after school, during the evening, every weekend. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
And I found the more I wrote, the better I got at it.
Well, duh. You think?
One “trick” I learned was to stop just short of saturation for the day. I would stop in the middle of an action scene or during an emotional exchange. That way, I would come back fresh and eager knowing exactly what I was going to work on in the next session. This got me warmed up and gave me a quicker start out of the gate.
Another useful bit of advice I followed was to get a beta reader. A person who would read your work and give your feedback. I did so after a few months and holy cow, was that scary! What if I really did suck? Oops. Sorry. I mean inhale deeply. I had to develop a thick skin and fast.
But I so fortunate to retain my mother as my beta reader. As a retired school teacher, she had the background and time to critically read each chapter as I went along, pointing out weaknesses in the plot as well as discrepancies in the characters. But, being my mother and I, her favorite child, (no matter how much my siblings protest) she was also fantastic at pointing out what was working well. For me, a balanced viewpoint was critical at this stage in my career because I was always looking at what was wrong with my story. And I needed to know what I was doing right so I could repeat it.
Day after day, word after word, I plodded along, until I reached the infamous middle of the book. The nemesis of so many good writers. I had been dreading this moment. After reading about writers giving up at this point in their book, I was mentally prepared to slam into the Wall.
Maybe I was geared up. Or lucky. Or maybe all that advice from other authors helped, but whatever it was, I hit the middle of my book, lowered my head and battered my way to the two-thirds section. Came up for air and looked around.
And that’s when I knew.
I was going to finish my first book. The plot was slowly tightening up, dialogue was flowing like the Colorado River during the spring melt, and I even knew how Griffin Rising was going to end. The adrenaline took over and I sprinted toward the finish line.
Stay tuned for part two of How I Became a Writer by Darby K. on Thursday, February 14, 2013
In the meantime: Want to check out/buy some of Darby K.’s books?