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
It was a Saturday morning, in late November, four months after I started, when I typed the words The End on the bottom of the last page.
Wow. Cool. I had written a book. A poor one. But a book, nonetheless.
So I hit the save button. Then compulsively hit it again. Then dumped the manuscript on my flashdrive. Then dumped it on a second flashdrive, turned off my computer, and went downstairs for a celebratory cup of coffee.
And I was quite certain that I was now a different person. But I wasn’t. I was still just me. I still had to go to work, clean house, shop for food, clean the litter box, and all the other mundane tasks of life. And that was okay. Healthy, even. A famous Zen Buddhist expression kept running through my mind: “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
(That said, finishing a book remains a rarified thing in this society. There’s a popular statistic that although 85% of population wants to write a book, less than 4% of authors get published. And only 0.2% of those get a chance to publish a second book.)
So I refilled my coffee mug, kicked off my fleece lined flip flops and fired up my laptop.
And began re-writing Griffin Rising that day.
Because I now had a new goal.
To improve my writing. And make those characters so real, so compelling that they would stop yakking in my head and go pester other people. You know. Murmur in their heads all night and leave me alone.
Winter came and went. And I rewrote Griffin’s tale over and over. Some sections just a few times, some sections over twenty times. Added and took away.
I continuously e-mailed new and improved chapters to my beta reader. Than handed the manuscript off to a few friends, including my school’s librarian.
And I rewrote it.
I gave it to my sister and brother for their opinion.
And I rewrote it again.
And it was agony. Excruciatingly painful. I found it was more difficult to accept criticism after I had learned a thing or two than before. With my earlier drafts, I would justify negative remarks by reminding myself it was just that: a draft. But as I re-wrote it and found my voice, the criticisms hurt worse because now it was truly me they were judging. I would force myself to nod and listen, really listen, and then I would look at the section or chapter through their eyes, and I would have to agree.
But finally, on a snowy day in mid-winter, I found myself jotting down some ideas for the sequel. And I knew I was getting closer to the beginning of the ending of the editing process.
Which, I recently discovered, never really ends.
But I loved editing. I loved polishing each sentence until it gleams, each chapter until it was smooth and sharp. The more I edited, the stronger it became. And the stronger I became. Just like a cross country runner, I found my stride, working my writing into the rhythm of my existence, so that writing was a part of my life, not my life.
Yes, sir, nothing could stop me now.
Until I sent out my first round of query letters.
Okay, those left some bruises. But ice and aspirin helped and I kept working on the manuscript. And the query letter. And sent out another round of query letters.
And finally, eleven months after I began writing my first book, Griffin got his wings with Twilight Times Books.
It Takes What It Takes
So what really, really helped me write my first book? Well, lots of things and lots of people. But the three most important things that enabled me to reach my goal were to read a lot, write a lot, and read about writing a lot.
Read a lot.
The other day, I attended a book talk given by an up and coming young adult author at our city library. As I sat poised with a yellow pad balanced on my knee, ready to mine nuggets of brilliance, my mouth fell open at the following statement from the author: “I really don’t like to read that much.”
What the …?!
How can an author not like to read? It’s like a cook who doesn’t sample his dishes or a teacher who doesn’t like children.
Now it used to be the custom, in Europe, that young artists would begin their apprenticeships by studying the works of the masters. For centuries, one would find youths in museums or galleries, feverishly sketching one masterpiece after another, learning the craft by practicing the craft.
Okay, maybe it was different with this guy. I don’t know. But like most authors, I read constantly. All the time I was working on Griffin Rising, I read three or four books a month, mostly young adult fantasy. I read to relax, but mostly I read to learn from the masters.
But I also read several biographies and even a history of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Read. Read everything.
Write a lot.
As I mentioned earlier, I managed to train myself to write whenever and wherever I could. For me, daily self-discipline was the key to finishing my first draft. Yes, I had to compromise in some arenas, but not as many as I had first thought. Oh, sure. My house was not as clean as I usually kept it, but I soon grew proud of my dust bunnies. The bigger, the better was my motto. And I had to keep introducing myself to my husband so he wouldn’t forget who I was.
The two arenas, however, I never neglected were my job and my exercise regime. I still had a life to live outside of my head. And I began to find that when I took a break from my book, my subconscious mind did a lot of work for me, solving plot holes, enriching the characters, and so on. I just needed to give it a chance.
Read about writing a lot.
I continued to study everything I could on how to improve my writing. Everything I needed to learn was available, in books, on-line, in magazine or from the local library. Incredible!
And I am still learning.
Springtime in the Rockies (why, yes, that is an oxymoron)
Finally, in the spring, after months of stalling, I screwed up my courage and attended my first writer’s conference. Which I should have done before I began my book, but since I seemed to have done everything else backwards, what the heck.
I arrived an hour early and stood around the lobby of the hotel, my knees shaking as I watched other writers milling around, chatting with each other, no doubt discussing their fourth book deal and the outcome of a private lunch with the editor-in-chief at Random House.
You know, they probably all have been writing since they could hold a pencil, I thought to myself. Or they have master’s degrees in literature and live in New York City. I gulped and went for my sixth cup of coffee.
But once I was registered and bleeding copiously from stabbing myself with my nifty pin-on nametag (the name tag, which, I was quite sure, said ‘Wanna Be’ in neon letters under my name), I crept into the first workshop and hunkered down in the back.
When I looked around, I noticed a lot of others had the same deer in the headlights expression as me. The workshop began, the panel of agents and publishers helping the audience lighten up by wisecracking about the foibles of the publishing industry, and as I heard other writers asking the exact same questions I had, I relaxed and just soaked it all in.
Over the next few days, I lunched and talked with other writers just like me, and scurried from one workshop to another, learning a mile a minute, and even met some future friends with whom I formed a critique group. I came away from that weekend with a renewed determination and a wonderful discovery: for the most part, the writing and publishing world is made up of some of the finest, most gracious people in this round world.
My first book was such a backwards journey. I have often wondered if I would have done better to learn more before writing it. I’ll never know, because I cannot repeat that first expedition.
Writing is an odd duck of a profession. You do not need have a degree or a license or spend a lot of money. Just determination. And almost every bit of information, from how to write to how to get published to how to market your book is easily and cheaply available.
Since then, I’ve written the sequel to Griffin Rising as well as the first novel in another young adult fantasy series. And I will always strive to improve my craft. That will never change. Writing is infinite; my next book will always be better than the one before and rightly so.
Enough of me.
Now go write your book.
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