Magic happens when you stop writing alone
How I became a writer, lost my way, and then found it again, thanks to my writer friends
In this week’s article, I discuss how important having a writing community has been to me as a person and as a writer.
Allow me to tell you a story about a storyteller. That storyteller is me.
I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember.
It started when I was a little kid, probably in nursery school, where I would make up stories to act out with other kids on the playground, and then at home with my Barbies or stuffed animals.
By 6th grade, I had written the first short story that I can recall, featuring two hillbillies selling lemonade. No, I have no idea why I chose that story to tell. I guess it’s good that I did, though, because all these years later I still remember writing it.
Throughout high school, I seized upon every opportunity to write stories for contests and even took a creative writing class. I also used Dungeons & Dragons to help me craft stories and then worked through the scenarios by playing the different roles by myself. In the British series Robin of Sherwood, when Robin Hood (Michael Praed) was killed, I was so distraught that I wrote my first ‘fan fic’ (though I had no idea at the time that’s what it was) to give the story an ending I could live with. (There would be a new season, with a new Robin Hood played by Jason Connery, but I didn’t know that at the time.)
By the time high school was over, I had written—and won—a one-act playwriting contest and had started what would become, many years later, my first novel. Then in college, I took more writing classes and continued to write well after I graduated.
Since then I have written constantly, both fiction and nonfiction. I managed to get my first novel—By Moonrise—finished and published, and I’m pretty happy with it. But since then (December 2015, if you’re keeping score), I haven’t completed and published anything else.
There were lots of reasons. I had a sequel that wasn’t working, so I started a new novel that would sit between the two (and it, The Hidden Moon, is close, but not quite, finished). I also wrote, and rewrote, at least six other full-length novels (or tried to). In nearly every case I choked somewhere past the midpoint and couldn’t finish them—I lost the story or something.
I also dealt with a lot of self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and a feeling of failure brought on largely by my association with successful indie authors. I’d ask myself: how could so many people write and publish so many books when I couldn’t even finish one? If I did it once, why couldn’t I do it again? (Never mind the fact that By Moonrise took decades!)
But as in all alchemical transformations—and all heroines’ journeys—there has to be a painful period when everything falls apart. I was ready for a change, but not quite ready to be reborn anew.
So I turned to a long and in-depth study of story structure. That journey began in 2017 with working with my good friend and author Skyler White, who I think saved me and kept me from giving up when things were the bleakest. Working with her and a few other writers was my first writing group where we worked through ideas and shared our process with others. But as helpful as it was, it was also terrifying and caused all kinds of insecurities to bubble up to the surface.
For the next few years, I chugged through the steps of rebuilding myself as a writer, trying to claw my way back to the surface so I could breathe again. I worked to apply all the lessons Skyler taught me, while also drinking deeply from the well of the books Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel), which talk about story structure and how to outline a novel.
But with all of that, the insecurity and the studying, writing fiction had all but ceased to be fun. It wasn’t an escape, and it didn’t offer me the excitement that it had for so many years. Instead, it felt like a slog, something I was supposed to do, something that I had to do, not something that I looked forward to doing.
I felt like a failure. And if writing fiction was what I considered my strongest skill, and I couldn’t even do that effectively, where did that leave me?
Something magical happened in 2020 (no, not that COVID thing). It was in the year that otherwise should not be mentioned that I found my people!
Those people are in the group Stop Writing Alone. With Nicole Rivera and other members of the group, I finally found a safe space to write and be a writer. Within the community, and thanks to a number of “Happy Camper” programs and writing prompts organized by Nicole, I have written more short stories than I can count, revised novels, entered writing contests, and even got a story (that I wrote based one of her 52-week writing prompts) published in an anthology. The encouragement, support, assistance, and fun we had all through quarantine and beyond restored my confidence and helped me find my way back to the joy of writing.
Last August I finished my new ‘book’ entitled The Girl Behind the Camera. It’s a young adult urban fantasy story about the adventures of teenagers in St. Louis. It’s the first of a series called The Favor Faeries that I published as serial fiction on Kindle Vella as well as here on Substack.
Initially, I wrote this story for the 3-Day Novel competition over Labor Day weekend 2020. About four days before it started, a small group within our Stop Writing Alone group decided we’d give the competition a shot. Our last-minute decision meant that I had less than a week to come up with an idea for an entire ‘novel’ and plan it out. To be honest, I had low expectations for the final product.
I had only one goal.
After everything I had gone through, after all of the incomplete novels littering my hard drive, I wanted to see if I could write a complete story of novella length (about 25,000 words) all the way through to the end in just three days. Not 2/3 of a novel. Not a framework with lots of holes. But a complete novel that could stand on its own.
Could I actually do the thing that had been eluding me for five years?
Somehow—perhaps with the help of faeries? Or maybe with the support of my fellow writers—I succeeded.
After I finished it, I didn’t read it. I just let it sit untouched for most of a year. When I went back to review it a few weeks ago, I was shocked at how much I liked it, even in its rough form. So I polished it up, added about 30% more to the story, and it’s ready to go. So for the first time in almost six years, I have something that is complete and ready for the world to read.
In case you’re interested in reading The Favor Faeries, here’s the blurb for the first book, The Girl Behind the Camera:
At a school where everyone is thinner, richer, and more popular, Jenny MacLauren feels like an outcast. Photography is her key to standing out. But when one of the rich girls gets named as photo editor, Jenny turns to the Favor Faeries, controversial beings that people say can grant small wishes in exchange for trinkets and snacks. Will the faeries’ magic be strong enough to help her win the accolades she desires—or find the cute boy she meets along the way?
I didn’t win the competition, but I feel like I won an even bigger prize. And I can’t wait to share it with everyone!
What am I up to today?
Currently, I’m working on serializing the next book in the series, The Boy Who Can Taste Color, both here and on Kindle Vella. The goal is to publish both books, plus the third, The Boy Who Danced with Faeries, as actual paperback books on Amazon.
I’m also writing both this Substack and Unseen St. Louis, my Substack about St. Louis history (the most recent article was about the caves under the city!). And because I believe in the importance of writing communities, I’m also the co-organizer of Fictionistas, a Substack for fellow fiction writers on the platform.
(Pssst: Fictionistas features a great list of fiction Substacks you might want to check out, including Adventure Snack by Geoffrey Golden, my co-organizer of Fictionistas, and Story Hoarder by Nicole Rivera of Stop Writing Alone.)
So that’s the story of me as a storyteller—at least for this installment.
Stay tuned for the next chapter!
Right now both the complete novella The Girl Behind the Camera and the in-progress novel The Boy Who Can Taste Color are available on Kindle Vella and here for paid subscribers. However, if you’d like to read The Girl Behind the Camera for free, just shoot me an email and I’ll send you a download link.
And let me know what you think!