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, less than a week before her middle-grade debut Keeper of the Lost Cities comes out, is Shannon Messenger revealing hers…
Guest post by Shannon Messenger
I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
By mistake, I mean jumping headfirst into a career I knew absolutely nothing about. Like when I switched to a film major, even though I had no idea how Hollywood actually worked (or even what being a film major meant—but that’s a whole other story altogether). A few years later I had a degree I never planned to use, interning experience for jobs I didn’t want, and a whole lot of pride swallowing to do when I made the terrifying decision to leave LA.
But that’s not the turning point I’m here to talk about.
I’m talking about the after.
The part where I realized I’d lost something when I set aside my dreams of writing for the silver screen. I missed sinking into another world and falling in love with the characters and getting swept away in all the excitement as the plot unfolded. I still had stories swirling around in my head—but now I was fighting them, snuffing them out, and the loss made me ache in ways I didn’t fully understand.
The more I missed it, the more I started to wonder if I should try writing again. But not a screenplay—never a screenplay again.
A children’s book.
I had an idea for a middle-grade fantasy series that was refusing to be ignored. And while I knew zero about writing novels, I’d spent years studying screenwriting. Surely everything I’d been taught would still apply. Screenplays couldn’t be that different, could they?
I quickly discovered that yes, yes they were. Of course there were overlaps—but when it came down to it I had no idea what I was doing. And after a few months of dragging embarrassingly bad files to a “deleted scenes” folder on my laptop, I started to wonder if I should just give up on the whole idea.
But the real problem wasn’t my inexperience with novel writing.
I was struggling to put the proper effort into polishing my craft because the whole thing felt like a waste of time. It seemed pointless to really invest my energy into writing a book if I wasn’t going to try to have it published. And pursuing publication felt too much like chasing another crazy Hollywood dream—and I knew how that had worked out for me. I wasn’t going to commit to something like that again. Not without knowing what I was getting myself into this time.
I tried to do my homework by reading articles and blogs—anything I found that told me about the book business. But none of that could show me what it was really like to be an author. How it would affect my life. And that was the crucial piece of information I needed before I could decide.
So when I heard about an event called Project Book Babe, where a group of children’s authors were teaming up to raise money for a book buyer friend battling breast cancer, I begged my husband to let me buy tickets. Yes it was expensive—and yes it meant driving to Arizona for something that he did not think sounded nearly as exciting as I did—but it was for a great cause, and he agreed it was a perfect chance for me to meet authors at all different stages of their careers and hopefully figure out if this was something I should do with my life.
A few weeks later we made the five-hour trip to Tempe, Arizona. And I’ll confess, I spent most of that drive watching the barren desert landscape whizz by and wondering if I was losing my mind.
I’d walked away from Hollywood because I absolutely did not belong. The constant networking to get ahead. The inescapable competition. It just wasn’t me. All I’d wanted was an outlet to tell my stories. I’d never had any hunger for fame—and the longer I was around it the more I realized how incredibly destructive fame could be.
But being an author was a level of fame too. A smaller, quieter one. But still—fame. So I didn’t see how publishing could ever be a right fit for me.
Until I got to Project Book Babe.
As I sat in that high school auditorium listening to the amazing authors talk about what inspired them and how they felt about their characters and what they loved about writing, it felt like they were speaking for me—not to me. Like they were channeling everything I’d ever thought about storytelling and what I wanted from a career and broadcasting it straight back to me. And the event was about as un-Hollywood as you get. No red carpet or paparazzi. No special spotlights for the authors who’d sold more books or won more awards. Just ten people at tables with poster-board signs, answering questions and auctioning off items they’d donated to help raise money for friend—and not because that friend was some uber-powerful publishing mogul who might help further their careers. They were helping her because they cared about her and she’d been an awesome cheerleader for their books and because she deserved it.
These were my kind of people.
And I knew—right there, right then—that this was it.
I was so sure I remember leaning over to my husband and whispering, I can do this.
This was me. This was a career that fit. And I suddenly wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything. Even though I had a lot to learn. Even though I knew it would be hard. This was it—the dream that was finally worth chasing. And I was going to race after it with everything I had.
I left Project Book Babe armed not only with that newfound determination, but also a new way of approaching my draft. One of the authors had talked about writing everything the character did to get from Point A to Point B—even though it meant throwing lots away at the end—because they discovered amazing things along the character’s journey. It was the exact opposite of how I’d been working, with my rigid outline, and the first day I tried it I had a breakthrough. A new character popped into my story—one who quickly wormed his way through the entire series—and with him in my arsenal the whole plot finally started to come together.
It still took me two more years and twenty drafts (yes, really) to finally tell my story the right way and make it good enough to sell. But all that work paid off. Keeper of the Lost Cities will be published by Simon & Schuster this fall. And I hope it will be the first of many books to come.
Shannon Messenger graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she learned—among other things—that she liked watching movies much better than making them. She also regularly eats cupcakes for breakfast, sleeps with a bright blue stuffed elephant named Ella, and occasionally gets caught talking to imaginary people. So it was only natural for her to write stories for children. KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES is her first middle-grade novel, launching October 2, 2012. LET THE SKY FALL, a young adult novel, will follow in Spring 2013. She lives in Southern California with her husband and an embarrassing number of cats.
Find her online at shannonmessenger.com.
Follow @SW_Messenger on Twitter.
ANNOUNCING THE WINNER OF THE GIVEAWAY…
The winner of a signed finished copy of Keeper of the Lost Cities… plus the Project Book Babe poster signed by Stephenie Meyer, Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Laini Taylor, Dean Lorey, Chris Gall, Janette Rallison, James A. Owen, Jon S. Lewis, P.J. Haarisma, and Frank Beddor is…
Congrats, Ren! I’ll email you for your mailing address. And thank you so much to Shannon for offering up this generous prize and to everyone who read her post and entered!