Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Learning

I taught myself to write from books and magazines such as The Writer and Writer's Digest because I didn't know any better. I had a high school education and a year and a half of college at Kansas State University.

I was married at 19 and we moved to Western Kansas. Looking back, I've been incredibly lucky in so many ways. I had the capacity for happy self-delusion. Writer's Digest was incredibly upbeat in those days. It promised success to nearly anyone who would persist. And I believed it.

There were no writing groups to burst my bubble. I read and read about how to write. I've never had a creative writing class.

Because we were poor, I ordered books through Interlibrary Loan. Then I outlined them. I still have that precious notebook filled with pages printed on my cranky lightweight portable Royal Typewriter that I received for high school graduation. The "e" didn't work right. Every time I used it, I had to manually pull the key back in place. Something about the process of typing out my little outlines imbedded techniques in my brain.

Through Writer's Market I discovered articles made more money than fiction. I wrote a great query letter to Overdrive Magazine, a publication for owner-operator truck drivers. They were interested immediately. I was higher than a kite. Then I submitted the worst article I've ever read. They rejected it immediately. Since then I've sold a number of articles, but I've never forgotten the shame I felt when I re-read the opening paragraph when it came back by return mail.

The article was "You Don't Have to Learn the Hard Way." It was a great idea urging owners-operators to avoid beginners' mistake. A list followed. But my opening sentence was "The Road of Life is full of chuckholes."

Ironically, I submitted my first short story to the same magazine and they bought it right away. They bought the second one too. Then I had a good sale to Woman's World. When we moved to Liberal, Kansas, I wrote my first novel, The Octogen House. It was sort of a gothic, which were all the rage back then, and sort of a historical novel. I wrote to a couple of agents, and one was sort of interested.

I sent it to one agency that charged a reading fee and I managed to scrape up the money. I was ecstatic over the thoroughness of the critique. Because I didn't know any better.

Finishing that book gave me a wonderful feeling. I knew for sure I could write one, but I also knew I didn't want to write gothics. I wanted to write historical novels. My next book was Come Spring and it was published by Simon & Schuster. It was a great first publishing experience. Following that was a series of blunders. Too many to go into in this post. Explaining my mistakes will make a good blog.

When I decided I wanted to tell the story of Nicodemus, the first all-black settlement on the High Plains, I finished my bachelor's degree and also got a master's in history.

I'm still learning from books. I stumbled across a great one last week: Richard Russo's The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life. He has one of best essays on full omniscience I've ever read.

Full omniscience is my favorite voice. I use it in historical novels, but I don't know if it's used by mystery writers. I would love to know if our readers can think of any.

Lottie Albright, the protagonist of my mystery novels wanted to speak in first person. I had nothing to do with it.


Aline Templeton said...

This has really brought back memories for me! I learned in just the same way.It was a long hard slog but when I read one of those writers' magazines with the 'How to Write A Bestseller' headline I too made notes was always seized with huge confidence. Briefly. Until I went back to my desk and strangely it didn't seem to work like that.

Thomas Kies said...

I loved this, Charlotte!

Rick Blechta said...

Maybe we should all do posts on "How I got started in the writing game".

A follow-up might be, "You too can write a novel and possibly make hundreds of dollars during your lifetime".

Great post!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Loved this Charlotte. My start in writing is an exact echo of yours. But if we hadn't had all that "yes, you can write novels that sing" how would we have gotten where we are? We believed, and we persisted. Parts of my career earnings could list as 'hundred of nickels' but what the heck, I've enjoyed the ride and will continue.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thanks for all of the comments. Rick, I love the idea of each of us telling how we got started. My biggest asset was ignorance. If I had known how unlikely it was that I could get published by a major New York house and that I would land a major agent right off the bat it wouldn't have stopped me writing but I probably would have been suckered in by a vanity press.

I have material for several blogs on all the mistakes I made after that.