Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Writing Up A Storm

I've been a writer ever since I can remember. I'm not saying that I've been a good writer all that time; my point is that I'm not new to this game -- no, siree. Forget all those rejection letters, forget all the hours spent agonizing over blank paper or computer screen, a writer I am and a writer I will always be. I cannot even recall when it all began -- when I first sat down with a pencil and paper and managed to turn out something intelligible. Something that made others smile and say Hey, this is pretty good! Once that happened, though, I was well and truly hooked and it would have been too late to stop even if I'd known where it was going to take me.

When I was nine, I got a poem published in a children's magazine. I waited breathlessly after sending it off, then one day to my delight received a letter telling me that it had been selected for publication. Months passed, and finally the issue with my poem arrived. I quickly turned the pages until I got to the poetry section. My poem wasn't there! Heartbroken, I showed my mother. She turned the magazine over, and on the back cover, there it was: my poem, fully illustrated. In color. Nothing will ever top that. Doris Lessing can eat her heart out.

When we were ten, my best friend and I decided to write a book together. We called it Free As The Wind and it was every bit as awful as it sounds. The protaganists were two girls we called Mary and Roberta. Although Mary was my given name, I went by my middle name at the time, and I gave Mary all the qualities I desperately wanted: beauty, grace, coordination, and the ability to sail. Roberta was my best friend's alter ego and embodied her ideal: an adventurous and feisty girl, with an almost reckless spirit. Roberta had a bratty little sister called Sally, and Mary and Roberta were always trying to get away from her. One day, they packed up a picnic lunch and an unlikely number of other useful provisions, borrowed someone's boat, and took off for a little sailing trip. Though there wasn't a cloud in sight when they departed, minutes into their voyage a violent storm began to brew. Both girls managed to get whacked unconscious by the boom, though fortunately neither sustained permanent damage, and the boat miraculously sailed itself to a small, deserted island. This was a shameless rip-off of one of our favorite books, Carol Ryrie Brink's Baby Island, but we told ourselves that the rest of the plot was so different that the obvious similarities hardly mattered. Mary and Roberta set off to explore the island and were lucky to find an abandoned house where they took shelter. Things were looking pretty good when they heard voices: angry male voices. Peeking out the window, they spotted a couple of sinister-looking fellows with bushy black beards. That was as far as we got, but we just slapped on To be Continued and considered ourselves finished. We even illustrated it.

Somewhere in a carboard box upstairs, I still have a copy of that dreadful poem; I have often looked at it and tried to imagine just how bad my competition must have been. I'm still in touch with my friend, and she's hung on to Free As The Wind, after all these years. On my rare visits to see her, we always look at it and laugh ourselves silly. Picture an American version of the very worst Enid Blyton you've ever read, add stilted dialogue, unrealistically capable heroines, a dopey plot, and the cheesiest pictures you can imagine, and you'll have some idea of our opus. But to this day, I remember the sense of pride and accomplishment; the wonderful feeling seeing my published poem gave me; the charge we got holding the book in our hands and thinking this is ours; we did this.

After those first giddy efforts, I continued to write. For the most part, I wrote letters, stories and memoirs. Then I got caught up in the adventure of life, as one does, and satisfied myself with merely writing letters. But some day, I was convinced, I would take it up again, full-time.

Several decades later, I decided I was ready to write another book. I had children, and like a lot of writer-parents, I made up stories for them. You don't have to be all that good to get your kids' enrapt attention: you could probably rattle off laundry lists and they'd beg for more. I knew that my kids just wanted to postpone bedtime for as long as possible, but making up stories brought back a long forgotten thrill: the joy of coming up with something that made people say What happened then? Gradually, the stories I told became more refined and elaborate. Characters took on decided personalities, developed preferences, fears and aspirations. Plots became more complex.

One story in particular began to take hold of me. When I found myself devising sub plots late at night, lying awake, unable to sleep, I bullied my husband into getting a computer, though he doubted that I'd ever use it. Five minutes after he'd set it up, I sat down and started my first children's book, writing hours at a time after work every evening. What with my job and two young children, it took me ages, and I often felt as though I was sitting in the eye of a storm, working away, while chaos raged around me. Five months later, the house was a wreck and my family were less than pleased, but I had another manuscript. It was considerably better than Free As The Wind, but it did not sell.

I wish I could tell you that after many efforts, I finally made it, but the fact is, I still haven't reached my goal. Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll die before I see any of my books published. And that would be very sad, but even if I knew this was going to happen, I suspect that like Isaac Asimov, I'd just write a little faster.


Carole said...

Very cool. I loved this and wish you would have posted your first poem also. You are too persistent to not get published and your writing is too good.

Ello said...

Mary, I connected with you on every level of this story. I loved that you shared this with us. It is a great story of how you became a writer. I can only hope that we both continue to keep writing and keep plugging away at manuscripts that will eventually sell. We will just have to write faster!

debra said...

Wonderful story, Mary.
When my girls were little, the most requested stories were the ones that I started: "this is the story of the beautiful fairy princess, Sarah Aurora and her best friend Shimmery Shiny." Such adventures they shared! Going to the land of the giant day lilies, and to the place where they rode bumble bees like horses.
Sweet memories, these...

Brian said...

I have never been an enthusiatic prose writer-- as I can't plot, am mostly overblown in description and with numerous other faults.

I didn't write a poem before my time at university, just some crappy school magazine prose, then wrote one or two, then gave it away for forty years anyway.

Where I am lucky is in the fact that at my age of 78 I don't really give a damn about writing for really public consumption, just for my children, hence no angst about publication.

If I had your drive and skills, Mary, of which I am so very envious, I would be in there fairly belting it out !


Kara said...

Well I'm sure you'll be HUGE posthumously. But, you know...I hope your genius is discovered a bit earlier.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Thank you for those kind words, and how I'd love to believe them! If I ever get a book published, I promise to send you that poem. Otherwise, don't hold your breath. My sisters, who can be very cruel, used to enjoy reciting it to me. The wicked things committed it to memory.

Ello -- I always love to hear what motivation other writers had for starting to write, as they are all so different. I write in order to make sense out of what is going on in my life, out of the joy of creating something entirely new, and as believable as I can make it, and also because I am an insufferable show off. And I really look forward to the day when we see each other at writers' conferences and talk about our various new books...Wouldn't that be fun?

Debra -- Your children will never forget those stories. My parents also used to tell me stories, and to this day I recall them with longing and awe -- the mood they created, and the feelings I could not begin to describe. I did my best to reconstruct their stories for my children, but when I could not, I just made up my own. It's a lot like how we raise our children, if you think about it. We start off with something sound, but make up a lot of the plot as we go along.

Brian -- The fact that you love description can be attributed to the poet in you. In my case, it is not knowing where to quit.

If I really thought I had something YOU envied, I could just about quit now -- but no, I wouldn't; in fact, I would try all the harder. Are you just toying with me here, or trying to make me feel better? I've READ your poetry, remember!

Kara -- Posthumously famous would be good, actually. I'm already thinking about which charity I want my royalties to go to. No way the money's going to go to my kids, the state they left the bathroom this morning.

Carolie said...

I would LOVE to read your children's story, Mary...I'll make you a deal and send you mine in exchange for yours, promising honest critique if you will promise the same.

You ARE a writer. You're a good writer. I love reading your posts and look for more eagerly, even when I know damn well it's the middle of the night where you are, I check, just in case you've posted something while I've been away from the computer.

Church Lady said...

Mary, I don't know how hard you tried to get your children's story published, but it sounds more than worthwhile to keep pursuing.
Do you belong to SCBWI? That's a great organization for children's writers.

If you feel comfortable sending me a bit of your story, I could offer feedback. This is my genre. And I am quite used to critiquing.

Either way, I think it's worth it to keep trying...

Kim Ayres said...

I'm sure when Picasso was 9, his parents looked at his attempts at painting and shook their heads. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I love your writing, but I'm not a publisher. At some point though, I'll happily play around with different book-cover shots with you, my digital camera and Photoshop :)

Eryl Shields said...

Sounds like you are a born writer. And if your fiction is as good as your memoir writing here on your blog it can surely only be a matter of time before someone gives you a publishing deal.

Have you met Andy Forster the literature development officer for this region? He, I believe, can help with the nitty gritty of getting your work out there. Sorting out agents and the like.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Please do send me your manuscript! And one children's story coming your way, my dear, but I will ask you to stick to that 'honest critique' part. One of my writing pals will be 90 soon and we've been corresponding for over a year. He didn't want to give me his honest opinion of a story I'd sent him, so I forced his hand and he let me have it with both barrels. I still think he's a great guy (and an honest one, too), we still correspond, and from time to time I send him a little scathing criticism too -- when he's earned it. This is the only way to go, painful though it most definitely is.

I have a high opinion of your writing too, and it is certainly heartening to have your praise. And I keep checking your site, too -- and just recently, I was rewarded!

Church Lady -- I will absolutely take you up on your offer. My children's book is more of an MG/YA -- if it is either of those. How do I send it to you, and can I return the favor in any way? It is always encouraging to know that other writers don't think I'm wasting my time. Or even if they care enough about me to lie convincingly, for that matter.

Kim -- My mother actively aided and abetted me in my pathetic attempts. And they were sincerely awful, too. I've seen a few things kids have done that are astonishing -- my older sister was a talented writer, for instance, even as a teenager -- but my writing really was crap. Still, it was MY crap, by and large.

I will take you up on your offer some time, and thank you!

Eryl -- I really should try and contact Andy Forster. I have met him, but it was a while back.

Last year, I thought I would try to get my memoirs published. I've now decided to push a few other things first, as few people seem to be interested in memoirs unless they are of famous people. One agent wrote that my writing was 'great fun' and said that it was too bad I wasn't a celebrity. Oh well: it is amusing to write them and I find it a productive way to procrastinate, if that makes any sense at all. It cheers me up no end that anybody wants to read them and almost makes up for the fact that I was not born a Spice Girl.

Danette Haworth said...

Back cover?! In color?! Excellent, Mary!

Church Lady said...

Hi Mary,
First of all,
Happy Holidays to you and your family! I hope you enjoy the season and spend some quality time together.


You can email me at my blog address--
And then I will give you my 'real' address. ;-)

Phil said...

Just popping in again Mary.

Always a pleasure to read. And that is why there is a market out there for you somewhere. Keep knocking.

Phil (GW)

Katie Alender said...

Mary, I love the part about ending your story "To be continued." I've been sorely tempted to do something of the same sort in my latest revisions.

I'm sure it's only a matter of time. Your voice is so charming. I will buy all of your books as they're released, if you buy a copy of my sad one every Halloween.

Ello said...

Mary, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season! Blessings to your family in the new year!


Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- So far that has been one of the high points of my brilliant career, but I cherish the hope that one day something may yet come along to match it.

Church Lady -- Merry Christmas to you too! When all of the holiday craziness and hoopla is over, I will be getting in touch with you.

Phil -- Thank you for those kind words. I've already struck a modest seam of gold with Duotrope, so thank you again for that, too. I will probably keep plugging away as long as I draw breath, and I hope you do too!

Katie -- I can still remember turning to my friend when we got to our cliffhanging bit about the men and their bristly beards and wondering aloud what to do. She and I both concurred that it was more interesting to leave it hanging - that readers would be panting for more of our story that way. But you are right: 'To be continued' makes it a lot easier on the writer. And arguably, more true to life.

Ello -- Same to you and yours. I hope you will be collecting a lot of little girl anecdotes to tell us, too. Christmas is a great time for those.

debra said...

I want take a moment to wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season, Mary.

Kanani said...

Write, write, write... do it because you love it. I forgot who it was, but Marcia Talley told us about a fellow writer who had something rejected 120 times. At 121 it was accepted ....and now she's writing more books!

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- Merry Christmas to you, Debra, and a very happy 2008! Thank you for visiting my blog.

Kanani -- I remember reading that William Golding sent Lord of the Flies out dozens of times only to have the manuscript come straight back in the post, and that was back when you had to fork out plenty for postage every single time. Writers back then really knew what rejection felt like; we almost have it too easy in this age of e-mail.

And that's what I'm going to keep telling myself -- every time I look in my Inbox and see yet another rejection.

Merry Christmas to you, and I hope that 2008 brings us both a few more acceptances!