By Mary Ogle
The year I turned forty-eight I decided to become a writer.
It was a considered and deliberate decision, not a whim or impulse. I was creative in other ways – I’m a painter and digital artist and I make my living by commercial illustration and designing websites. But I was restless, feeling I was treading a path so worn my head was disappearing below the ruts.
I flailed, seeking doorways, searching for exit signs, but encountered only mirrors. I found myself considering a long hidden reflection. I gazed into the troubled eyes of a lonely twelve-year-old in coke-bottle glasses, who sublimated her desperation to escape a harsh reality by writing fanfiction. Our connection survived, even though I’d left her there, stranded behind all those years. When I pulled on the thread that lay between us, I recalled with affection what it felt like to craft words into worlds.
I came up with a plan. I hadn’t written in a very long time, and even then it was essays for classes or business exchanges, not fiction. I needed to regain muscle memory, to become comfortable with the mere act of setting words to paper.
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So I started writing reviews for Doctor Who episodes and posting them on a shared content website. This worked well, because I had a deadline. I had to get the review out by the day after the episode aired. That forced me to keep writing consistently, learning to work through blocks because I had to post something by a certain time. I pulled a lot of all-nighters writing the first few reviews, but I began to trust myself, to be less afraid of sharing an opinion or choosing the wrong word. The more comfortable I allowed myself to become with language, the freer and easier my writing became. It was great practice.
Then I discovered the fanfiction sites. I didn’t know they existed. I started with fanfiction.net and Livejournal, but AO3 was a revelation. It was so easy to search and there was so much to experience, and the writing was good! Some of it was better than published fiction I’d read. I devoured whole swaths of fandom, clicking ravenously every time I found an author I liked. What I didn’t realize consciously at the time, was that I wasn’t only reading, I was learning. The intricacies of developing a character unfolded before my eyes. As plots unwound, and dialog revealed its secrets – the foundations of crafting a story started to make sense!
At first I just kept reading, allowing everything to soak in. I became more discerning, seeking out writers that touched me in some way, provoked me, made me feel something. I read for enjoyment but then reread with a critical eye. Why did this character move me, make me sad, fill me with anger or joy? Why did some scenes feel like I was in the room with the other person? Why did some plots bore me and others fill me with glee? What kind of writing made me care?
It took a long time to work up the courage to contribute to the archive myself. But finally I decided I needed to jump in, even though I really had very little idea what I was doing. The first thing I wrote was not very good. It was based on Doctor Who and it’s pretty obvious it was a first try. But it was a story. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end. There were people in it that were saying my words and interacting in the way I’d directed them too. I learned from it, and I kept going.
Over the next few years I wrote short stories. I got paid for the first time (twenty five dollars!) and I got rejected. And then one day, I decided it was time to write a novel. I'd had one simmering in the back of my head for a while, but the fear of failing held me back. What finally got me going was acknowledging a great truth - first drafts are crap. Perfect prose was not going to stream from my brain into my finger tips. My first pass was never going to be more than a lump of clay roughly molded.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but it took years for me to realize I didn't have to be perfect out of the gate. Accepting that fact was like a great weight lifting from my soul. I was going to write bad prose and it was okay. What mattered most was getting the words out – any words. I just needed the thing to exist, then I could work on fixing it.
Creating something of novel length daunted me. I had never gone beyond seventeen thousand words, and that was only one time. I had to figure out how to do it in a way the wouldn’t lead to me giving up in despair a quarter of the way through. It entailed a lot of trial and error, reading a lot of things on how to write novels and watching a lot of videos. Then throwing all that out and coming up with a way that worked for me.
I discovered I needed a framework, or else I’d get lost and never make it to the end. So I started wide. I drew little boxes on a sheet of paper and put my very broad plot points inside each of them. I switched a few around, added some more, took some out. Finally I had the barest bones of a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And that made me confident enough to keep going.
I converted the boxes to an outline and kept narrowing things down, adding details, adding scenes, bringing everything more and more into focus. Because I’d structured it this way, I could skip around without losing my place. If I was blocked while fleshing out one scene I moved to another.
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I made pass, after pass, honing, shaping, refining, and eventually I had over forty thousand words and knew I could write more without too much trouble. It was by far the longest thing I’ve ever written, and yet I didn’t feel burned out or lost because I always knew where I was in the story and where I was going. At one point I completely changed the ending and that was okay, because the foundation underlying it made sense and led into it naturally.
It took me seven years from the day I decided to step off the beaten track and go wandering in the wilderness, but I’m succeeding in building something new. I’m fifty-five now, and very close to publishing my first novel. I’ve experienced a lot of uncertainty, fear and worry along the way. I am intimately familiar with the voice inside my head telling me I’ll never be good enough, smart enough, strong enough. I did it anyway, not because I’m any different from anyone else. I just refused to give up.
In the end it turned out writing and painting were more similar than they appeared on the surface. Bringing anything to life in a culture that all too often marginalizes voices, is an act of willful defiance no matter what medium we use. It’s true that working outside my comfort zone was at times a minefield of confusion, criticism and self doubt. But on a day I’ll never forget, the words came together and my novel woke up. The characters climbed out from beneath my hands, argued with me, proclaimed their true names and demanded I write down what they told me.
Twelve-year-old me would be thrilled to know the story isn’t over.