By Terry Odell
Becoming a Writer by Mistake, or How I Traded Needlepoint for Writing.
The second-most often question I get asked when I tell people I’m a writer is, “How long have you been writing?” (The first is, “Have I heard of you?”) If I’m on a panel, I listen as everyone else spouts off their histories of wanting to write since before they could talk, or how they wrote their first manuscript in crayon. Then my turn rolls around, and I say, “About six years.” This answer does change as time passes, but it’s still never anything close to what my colleagues report. I was a card-carrying AARP member before I considered writing anything.
From there, it’s, “How did you get started writing?” The short answer? I ran out of room on my walls for needlepoint and had to find another creative outlet. But the real answer is, “By mistake.”
I never had any dreams of being a writer. Creative writing classes weren’t my forte. I knew all the rules of grammar, got A’s in English, but I was a reader. I devoured books. I read anything, from comic books to cereal boxes. My parents tell everyone that we moved when I was 12 because I finished the library. I made up stories, but they were in my head. I never thought about writing one down. They were usually daydreams, or continuations of books I’d read, or stories about characters on television. The closest I came to writing was two pages of a story I’d had running around in my head—something featuring MacGyver. But the actual typing was a total drag. Punctuation mattered. You had to start sentences with capital letters. There were quotation marks to deal with. All that use of the ‘shift’ key was a total drag.
Years later, my son was visiting. He, as all men are wont to do, was “watching” television by flipping the remote. He stopped on a show. “This one’s cool,” he said. “It’s all about these guys who can’t die unless you cut off their heads.”
My son went back home. Being a good mother, I decided to watch the show so we’d have something “cool” to talk about. I found “Highlander” in the listings, set the recorder, and watched an episode. Okay, I’m not proud. Watching Adrian Paul was no hardship. But the show also raised questions about what these Immortals could and couldn’t do, and I got curious. There were no Yahoo groups then, or even Google (I think, anyway). There were CompuServe forums. I found one about Highlander and discovered the world of fan fiction. It seemed right up my alley. I discovered one author whose voice resonated with me. (Of course, back then I had no clue it was her “voice.”)
We hooked up via email, she connected me with some of her friends, and I did some beta reading for them. Just because I wasn’t a writer didn’t mean I wasn’t a good reader, and I definitely used all my English skills to hone their stories.
Then, one day, hubby was out of town, and I decided to see what would happen if I tried to write a story. The beauty of fan fiction is that your world and your characters are all there. You can work on the skills of the craft in small increments. I cranked out my little story—actually, sweated it out, because it still didn’t come easy, what with getting all those quotation marks in the right place—and bravely sent it to the writer I’d befriended.
I’m sure she got a good laugh, but she came back with advice and comments. What the heck was POV?
I accepted the challenge. After all, I did get all those A’s in English, and surely I could learn how to put a story on paper instead of sucking up what others wrote. She had immeasurable patience, and when I finally had her approval that it was done, she insisted I post it to one of the Highland fan fiction forums. I got positive feedback, and like any good puppy, kept trying to please. (Had I known then how low the bar was for positive feedback, I might not have kept going, but since I didn’t, I did.)
Eventually, I found another writing group at a site called iVillage, and thought I’d try writing some original fiction, just to see if I could. I recall an exercise, where we were supposed to write a “hook” in under 200 words. I sent mine in, and got lots of “Wow, what happens next?” comments. How the heck did I know? So, I kept writing. 143,000 words later, the first draft of Finding Sarah was finished, and I’d hooked up with a local, in person, critique group who drove me to consider the “get it published” side of the writing craft. And one of my Highlander fan fiction short stories eventually provided a starting point for the next book I wrote, What’s in a Name? There’s a lot of Duncan MacLeod in Blake Windsor.
And somewhere along the line, I was talking with my son. I asked him what he thought of the writers killing off Tessa. He said, “What?” I said, “You know. Highlander. Tessa. Duncan’s girlfriend. They killed her character.”
His reply. “Oh, I never actually watched the show. I just thought it was a cool concept.”
And that’s how I became a writer by mistake. I don’t think I’ll go back to needlepoint.