This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Patty Blount, whose debut novel comes out today!, revealing hers…
• Guest post by Patty Blount •
“When did you first start writing?”
As soon as people learn I’m a writer, that’s the first question they ask, or some variation of it.
But it’s the wrong one to ask.
Asking a writer when she first started writing is much like asking, “When did you learn your first name?” It’s just something that’s always been part of who I am. Instead of journaling my day, I used to fill diaries with stories I’d made up. (Got in trouble for that once; somebody who shouldn’t have been reading it thought it was all true!) I’ve been writing since I literally learned to write.
The question people should ask writers is: “When did you first begin to trust your writing?” This is the compelling question—this is the question whose responses provide (hopefully) practical advice. How many times have you heard, “I have a great idea for a book. Someday…” There are many people out there who share this dream, but make excuses for not pursuing it. I know this because I used to be one of those people.
As much as I love writing, there is a part of me—a deep Dark Side—that shrugs her shoulders at it, treats it shallowly, like the plain boy next door: nice enough to hang out with, but date or—perish the thought—marry—no way. The Dark Side spouts insults and criticisms disguised as sage advice that echoes what my parents often told me:
“You’ll never make a living at it.”
“Anybody can write.”
“All the truly great ideas have already been written.”
I believed every horrid word she planted in my mind. So, instead of pursuing it, studying it, honing it, I tucked my writing dream in a drawer for someday and went to work. I got married. I finished college. I had a couple of kids.
Over the years, someone would ask me to write something. A resume. A letter to the editor. A position paper. Those were the days when I’d look up and discover hours had passed by in an eye blink. They were days when happiness—a true visceral joy—filled me. And still, the Dark Side came at me, badgering me not to trust it. “That’s not real writing. Anybody can write a letter.” So back in the closet went my writing, beside the legwarmers and Capezios and the lone gloves with no mates.
Years passed. Then, decades. There was always something to write. Petitions to a condo board. Articles for newsletters. Fan fiction. I even began working as a software technical writer. The more I wrote, the happier I was. I wanted to write a book—many books. I had so many characters in my head, so many voices, each with a story to tell. But the Dark Side would pat me on the head, flash a condescending little grin, and whisper in my ear. “Fiction isn’t technical writing, darling. Your ideas are crap. You can’t earn a living writing about dead babies, murdered parents, or bullies.” So I kept my stories locked up and buried my head in instruction manuals.
My turning point came the day my oldest son’s English teacher sent home a bad progress report. His vocabulary scores were sub-par. “He must read more,” she said. I took him to the library but he was unimpressed. “There are no good books here!” He announced and my heart sank.
“What do you consider good?” I asked, flinging my arms in the air.
He told me, “I don’t want to read baby stories. I want real action. Like hockey. And heavy metal music. And blood.”
Equal parts intrigued and inspired, I asked him what else he wanted in his ideal book. “Short chapters.”
“If such a book existed, would you read it?” I asked with a wide grin.
Catching on, he retorted, “If you write it, I’ll read it.”
My Dark Side laughed herself silly but I did write it and he did read it. Penalty Killer, a story in which a hockey dad is arrested for the murder of another parent during their sons’ hockey game, became my first finished novel. “Drivel! This isn’t worthy of lining a bird cage!” Dark Side insisted. But I did not care. I was euphoric that I’d actually finished. My son read it and so did a number of his friends. In fact, they all did book reports on it that year. The English teacher requested a copy and later returned it—graded. (I tried not to let the Dark Side know that.)
That my son and his friends actually liked my first novel was the cherry on top of a chocolate sundae. For me, having the discipline to bring a figment of my imagination to print was the point. I flipped my Dark Side the bird and channeled the unexpected boon in self-confidence into finishing another project called Postpartum Deception, a story about a woman whose emerging paranormal ability leads her to the baby believed to have perished in a house fire. “I did it!” I announced to friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, the pharmacist, and anybody who’d listen. “Would you like to read it?” My Dark Side choked on laughter when all those people scattered like rats from a sinking ship. So, Postpartum Deception all 160,000 words of it—sits in a drawer beside Penalty Killer.
But I did not stop. Even though no one wanted to read Postpartum Deception, I continued to write for me. Writing something—anything—was as essential for me as breathing. I carved out the time for it from laundry and cooking and ferrying kids all over town and working full time and the few dozen other things on my To-Do list—even if it was twenty minutes in an ice rink during hockey practice. It’s become a competition now. “Take that!” I shout as I type The End and my Dark Side moans a long “Noooooooo!” There is something profoundly satisfying in stripping the Dark Side of her powers one project at a time.
The more I wrote, the more seriously I treated writing. I studied. I honed. It was while I was writing Send (out in stores today, August 1, 2012 from Sourcebooks, Inc.) when I learned a critical lesson. I was reading over the work in progress and the Dark Side was beside me, an arm around my shoulders, planting her little confidence-eating worms in my mind. “This is laughable. That you even think anyone would pay to read this is ludicrous. Delete it. Burn it. Bury it.” Reduced not only to tears but too damn close to a breakdown, I tweeted my misery and a friend begged me not to destroy the story until she’d read it.
That moment, those few seconds it took to read a 140-character tweet, saved me. I did not delete the manuscript. I put it aside and out of mind for a day or two. My friend loved the story and that encouraged me to keep an open mind about my own abilities.
Here’s where it gets interesting: I began paying closer attention to what other writers were saying and blogging. I don’t know how I never noticed this before. The writers I follow, the writers I admire, even the writers with a bunch of published credits to their name, all have a Dark Side.
The successful writers are the ones who write despite it.
Each time I finish a story, my Dark Side shakes her fists in fury. “You’re not listening to me,” she whines.
That’s right. I’m not.
Born in Flushing, Queens, Patty Blount works as a software technical writer by day and pens novels at night. Her staff once affectionately dubbed her The Quibbler, for her (over) zealous defense of the language, exhibited by the lines through all the made-up computer jargon in their technical documentation. When asked what her Native American name might be, she answered without hesitation, “Dances with Words.”
It was on a dare from her oldest son when Patty finished her first novel, Penalty Killer, a story about a father arrested for the murder of another father during their kids’ hockey game—written during her son’s hockey practices. Though unpublished, Penalty Killer made the list of top ten book reports submitted to the local middle school that year. A copy was eventually requested by the seventh grade English teacher and subsequently returned, covered in red pen. (…a result Patty is certain her former staff members would find hilarious.)
A short version of her latest novel, Send, a story about a cyber-bully coming to terms with the suicide he caused, earned a top ten finish in the Writer’s Digest 79th Annual Writing Competition. Send comes out today—August 1, 2012—from Sourcebooks Fire.
Patty lives on Long Island with her husband, two sons and many, many books. Visit her online at pattyblount.com.