So You Wanna Be An Author?

Note: While I have some down time in terms of training (e.g. on rest days or days when I have nothing cool or notable to report, I will be writing these snippets into my life as a writer. They have nothing to do with my training but I think they’ll give some insight into who I am and why I decided to ski some crazy long race in the middle of winter. Trust me, the qualities it takes to be an endurance athlete and a writer do overlap.)

I grew up on stories.

My grandma Pat and my father are natural storytellers. My grandma has traveled the world. I don’t mean that she’s traveled to a couple countries in Europe. She has been on every continent except Antartica (but the cruise ship got her pretty darn close). She has traveled to every country in the world except for two (Greenland and Siberia). She’d travel in the winter when the resort was closed and she’d come back with pictures, souvenirs, and stories. The pictures were pretty cool; the souvenirs were a little hit-or-miss with us but it’s the thought that counts.

Her stories though … As a child I would feast on her stories. I’d hear all about the Masi tribe that hunts lions in Africa, and the women in Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia who wear hijabs as part of their religious identity. She’d tell me stories about the little peddler children in India who sell trinkets made out of trash at flea markets outside the Taj Mahal because they have nothing else and they’re literally starving. She’d tell me tales of her expedition down the Amazon river with a guide shining for caiman and encountering a bushmaster (the deadliest snake in the Amazon). From charging bull elephants to getting stung by a scorpion (twice), listening to Grandma’s stories is like flipping through a series of pulp adventure stories.

Similarly, my father is also a storyteller but his genre lies in the realm of history and nonfiction. I swear that the man has an eidetic memory when it comes to old movies, World War II, and musky fishing. I’ve heard all about the old greats of musky fishing: the fishing guides, the massive muskies, and the ones that got away. My father can take something factual and seemingly dry and inject a life and soul into the narrative. He has a keen instinct for building narrative tension.

He’s written and published three books and contributed several articles to Musky Hunter magazine and the local newspaper. I was in my pre-teen years when he started work on his book Three Record Muskies in His Day: The Life and Times of Louie Spray. From the research it took, to the actual writing, and to the mechanics of laying out a book and self-publishing it in a time before Amazon, I was exposed to the arduous and fulfilling world of writing at a young age.

Therefore it’s no suprise that telling stories is encoded in my DNA.

I grew up as a voracious reader (and I still am but I prefer audiobooks now). The Harry Potter series was my gateway into the world of literacy. My 4th grade teacher read us the first book during our read aloud time and it drew me in. He also read us novels from Roald Dahl and others, but Harry Potter struck me. I grew up in the world of Hogwarts. When life was hard for me, I’d escape into those pages and reunite with my Hogwarts friends. I matured with the books. I hit angst when Harry did and I hated the 5th book because of that. (In retrospect, Harry’s angst was a reflection of how I was feeling as a teenager with undiagnosed depression and self-esteem issues. I hated that book because I was Harry…I was too much like Harry.) As at adult, it’s my favorite book in the series for how it handles the darker aspects of growing up … go figure.

From middle school on through high school, I devoured everything tangentially connected in the YA Fantasy world, but I also loved books about the outdoors. Books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Guts, Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Into the Wild meant just as much to me as the books about vampires, werewolves, magic, and ancient kingdoms of a bygone age. I exposed myself to a variety of genres because I’m a person with many interests. Reading this much and about a plethora of topics made me who I am today. I owe my intelligence, my worldview, my personal morals and beliefs, and my sense of self to the books I love.

I started writing my first story when I was 14. I don’t remember what the story was about other than it was probably thinly veiled Van Helsing (the movie) fan fiction. I’m also not ashamed to say that I got my start in writing by writing fan fiction. For the uninformed, fan fiction is when a fan of something takes that universe and the characters (a.k.a. an author’s ‘intellectual property’) and writes their own story in the same universe.

But but but isn’t that plagiarism?!

The long answer is “sort of but not really.” Read this article for more information because this author does a great job explaining the nuances of copyright laws in terms of fan works like fan art and fan fiction.

The short and vague answer is “it depends on who you ask.”

Some published authors decry fan fiction because people — the majority whom are amateurs — take your carefully crafted world, characters, plot, setting, ect. and write something different and far far worse. Other authors encourage fans to write fiction with their work because they see the value that fan fiction has in bringing people of a fandom (a group of fans) together to celebrate your art. It also gives budding authors, like me, a place to practice writing fiction. I can practice skills like dialogue, exposition, pacing, and building narrative tension in a world that I’m familiar with and with characters whom I see as my own best friends and/or enemies. Overall as long as you are not making money from your work, writing fan fiction is perfectly legal … although it does tell the world that you’re a huge damn nerd.

So that’s where I started. I wrote Harry Potter fan fiction. No, I will not show it to you/tell you my pen name(s). Yes it is still out there. It’s fan fiction that I wrote when I was 15. I still look back on it and cringe (a lot) or chuckle at how shallow my characters were or how their motivations were cliche and uninspired. But sometimes I catch a glimpse of that talent that lies raw and undeveloped below the surface. I hate boasting about myself, but if I didn’t think I had writing talent or the capacity to do more, I would’ve stayed in the world of fan fiction to appease my nerd-soul. But I didn’t. I decided somewhere along the line that I wanted to write a novel. Worse yet, I decided that I wanted to make a profit from my writing and do it as a full-time job. (Thankfully my pragmatic brain kicked in here).

You can quote the statistics at me all you want. I’ve heard them all. The books about writing and the Great Courses lectures that I’ve listened to all quote me the same undeniable fact: becoming a published author is hard.

So I went to college to become an English teacher. I wanted to major in Creative Writing AND Education but my school wouldn’t let Education majors have double majors. I never took Creative Writing in high school. But I did get to take a creative writing class in college and that’s when I knew that Education was a means to an end for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love my students and I find teaching a rewarding profession but I look at teaching as a stepping stone to creative fulfillment.

I’m working on two projects now. Two original projects. The first one is what I submitted as my creative writing sample for my admission to Hamline for my MFA. It will be a magical realism novel set in small town Wisconsin in which Robert Clark, an ex-cop turned freelance investigator (he’s too uncool to be called a private investigator) encounters a 13 year old girl named Tilly whom he soon realizes is his daughter. Tilly is on the run. Her mother was just murdered by a neo-Nazi gang led by known meth trafficker Ricky LeChey because she stole some of ‘his product.’ The product in question isn’t meth. It’s a severed unicorn horn which when ground down into powder produces a manic high so much worse than meth, more addictive, and thus in high demand. (For the Breaking Bad fans, it’s the “blue sky” of this world).

I consider this novel more like an homage to True Grit and other classic revenge narrative stories. It’s also a deconstruction of the gruff white male “dad” video game protagonists that I’ve connected to when I play games with story driven narratives. (Ex: Joel from The Last of Us, Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite, Kratos from God of War, John Marston from Red Dead Redemption 1 & 2, and Geralt of Rivea from The Witcher series.

I also look at this as a way to explore the relationship between a father and his daughter. In Chapter 2 (when Clark realizes that Tilly is his daughter), Tilly has no idea that the man whom her mother told her to contact is her father. This is the dramatic irony that I plan to lean on while the overarching narrative plays out. When will Tilly put the pieces together? Will Clark spill the beans about his involvement with her mother? How will a 13 year old who has experienced trauma and an on-the-run lifestyle react? This project is my main priority right now and I am devoting most of my free brain power fleshing out these two individuals and their world.

Yes. I have characters living inside of my head. And yes, they do sort of talk to me.

The second project is more of a loose concept right now and all I will say is the setting and/or plot will involve a lost civilization similar to Atlantis and will be way more magic/fantasy based.

But what does that mean in terms of training for a cross country ski race? Writing and skiing are two unrelated activities. Except when they’re not.

Cross country skiing is a technical sport. Do you skate ski or classic (Nordic) ski? If you skate ski, do you know how to V-1, V-2, V-1 alternate, and double pole appropriately? Do you also have good skiing form? Do you have good balance and endurance to handle the trek? As a classic skier, do you have the timing down of “glide – kick – glide – kick”? Can you go down hills in the classic tracks without getting scared? Can you step out of the classic tracks at a moment’s notice to avoid a collision or a bad patch of snow without falling yourself? Do you have the dedication and the focus to ski in sub-zero conditions? Hell, do you have the constitution to go back skiing after you’ve huffed and puffed up steep climbs and debated whether all of the pain, cold toes and fingers, and sore muscles are worth it?

Becoming a writer is the same. Do you know how to write well? Can you create prose that is grammatically sound, engaging to the reader’s senses, and descriptive without being trite, cliche, or saccharine? Do you know when to “break the rules” of grammar for stylistic and creative purposes? Have you chosen a specific narrative style for your writing? First person is popular now but what about 3rd person omniscient or even second person narration? Do you have the dedication and passion for your craft so you can push through “writer’s block”? Do you think you can write over 100 pages of something, realize that the story would be better served if told from the perspective of another character, and then rewrite those 40 pages from scratch? (That totally didn’t happen to me with my current project…nope…not me).

So when I think about writing and skiing or biking, I realize that these skills are one in the same. Endurance athletes and writers need to be a little bit of a masochist. Both activities are usually solo endeavors. Yeah you can train with someone but when you’re out on the trail, it’s really just you versus the trail. I’m going to Hamline to “train” with other writers, but most of the actual writing is done in solitude. Lastly, both activities require you to conquer the self doubt, that mean little voice in your head that says: You can’t do this. You’ll never finish. You’re not a real skiier, biker, or writer. You’re a fraud.

I have a sticker on the cover of my moleskin journal which reminds me what I’m fighting for and working towards. The quote on that sticker comes from The Dresden Files (naturally) and I use this journal to log my bike miles and draft outlines for my writing.

For those who have a hard time reading the quote, here’s what it says:

“Passion has over thrown tyrants and freed prisoners and slaves. Passion has brought justice where there was savagery. Passion has created freedom where there was nothing but fear. Passion has helped souls rise from the ashes of their horrible lives and build something better, stronger, [and] more beautiful.”

I want to finish the Kortelopet. I want to finish writing my novel and get published.

I will achieve both tasks if I keep my passion for these goals at the forefront of everything.

“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” — Benjamin Franklin

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