Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A long and winding road... or how I came to be an author of paranormal mysteries

When I first started writing, lo, these many years ago {fourteen, to be precise}, I had no idea if I could write an entire book. Oh, I'd always written -- journals, essays, poetry -- because writing about my experiences was my way of dealing with the world. But a whole book, with characters I could relate to and care about, and situations that made sense, and a story that wouldn't let go? Did I really have the creativity? I didn't know, but I knew I wanted to try.

They say to write what you know, so it seemed sensible to try to write what I was most often reading at the time -- straight historical romance. It was harder than it looked. There were so many wonderful authors out there, so many who inspired me but at the same time made me think I could never be as good. But since I was writing just for myself, there was no pressure, no reason not to continue. Each new scene was a challenge, each chapter completed a major accomplishment. By the time I had finished the manuscript eighteen months later I was well and rightly hooked by the process of writing, but I still thought of myself as a dabbler. Sure, I was writing, but it was just for fun. No one else could possibly want to read my stuff...

I did mention my recent hobby to a couple of friends, and they asked to read what I had written. When they professed to actually enjoy it, I thought they were just being kind... as were members of a writing group I had found all the way across the state. But it got me to thinking. Could it be possible? Did I have a talent for this that I had never really expected to find?

The writing group suggested that I try submitting the manuscript to a New York publisher. So, with courage born of naivete, I went to my bookshelves and made a list of all the publishers represented there. A book at the library described the submission process. Armed with this new and foreign knowledge, I made my best attempt at writing a query letter and synopsis and sent off a few letters. Most of these came back with form rejections. I was more surprised than anyone when I received an actual request for the complete manuscript a month or two later from a major publisher. Back then I was writing on an old model home computer {a big step up from the typewriter I had started on, let me tell you} with an inkjet printer that was slow as molasses at printing off a 400 page manuscript, but print it I did. The expense of postage added to the expense of printing made me gulp, but it was far too late to turn back. I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and mailed it anyway.

As you might have guessed, that manuscript never did sell. The publisher kept it for eight months before rejecting it with a one and a half page letter telling me why they were returning it to me. Since I never really expected it to sell anyway, it didn't even hurt all that much. {Or is that pain just dulled by the time that has passed? Hmm...} I set the manuscript and the letter aside and just kept writing my stories, slowly, but surely. But my critique group didn't want to let it go. A letter with details wasn't just any old rejection. It was {and still is} rare to receive that kind of feedback. The publishing business worked with a set of unspoken rules and credos. Best that I learned them now and save myself heartache later.

Armed with my writing friends' collective knowledge, so graciously shared, and filled with a new hope, I continued to write and submit. But with each new manuscript submitted and rejected by all, the hope dwindled, and the self-confidence I had fought to attain began to wither. How could anyone continue to receive so-called "good" rejections for so many years but not sell the books she was writing? Maybe it was just not meant to be. Maybe I was kidding myself about this writing business. Maybe I should just quit while I was ahead.

I came to that point several times. Nearly quitting. Wanting to and not understanding why I couldn't seem to do it, why I clung to that last vestige of... well, not quite hope, but perhaps compulsion might describe it best, and all the while, a part of me was dying inside. Finally, even that part of me reached rock bottom. What was I doing? Why was I torturing myself this way?

Around that time I had had a strange experience where a story idea -- a character herself, really -- had come to me out of the blue and insisted I take down what she had to say, word for word. Information flowed from my brain to my fingers and out on the screen. Three pages of monologue in a kind of "brain dump" I had never before experienced. When all was said and done, I saved the file in my IDEAS folder and promptly forgot about it. I really had no clue what I could ever do with it. It wasn't suitable for historical romance. It wasn't even a romance at all, and furthermore, it was in first person. I had never liked first person! And it was paranormal. Now I have been a lifelong reader and researcher of the paranormal, so that part about it I liked, but it had never even occurred to me to include it in my writing. I was a writer of straight historical romance. This idea would never work for me. It was probably silly to even have saved it. Why-oh-why couldn't I get ideas that would sell?

I nearly gave up on writing altogether during that summer of my supreme discontent. But the universe had other ideas. I did actually stop writing for a few months. I read a lot, but I could no longer find things that sang to me. Nothing that resonated. Was it not enough that I was giving up on writing? Did I have to lose my love for reading as well? It hardly seemed fair.

I thought back to the last story I had read that had really gripped me, that had reached down into the very core of me and refused to let go: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. I took the book down again and tried to look at it with fresh eyes. What was it about that book in particular that I enjoyed so much? What I found surprised me. It wasn't the Scottish history or the wonderful Scotsman Jamie Fraser, as compelling as both of those things were to my soul. It was the epic nature of the book, the way it blended so many things -- including the paranormal -- and yet not one felt out of place. A cross-genre book that broke all the rules. It just felt... natural. Right. Meant to be.

And then there was the Goddess writer's seminar I attended, given by the wonderful Barbara Samuels and Jennifer Crusie. These two amazing women spoke eloquently about their "Girls in the Basement," their muses whom they likened to tough-and-difficult-to-please teenage girls. It was when they started writing to please their girls that they felt they truly found their niche. The sweet spot of story. Their seminar really got me to thinking. What if I let my inner self go? What if I forgot all about the editors I was trying to please? What if I forgot all about markets and writing rules and requirements and just wrote something for myself? What would that something be?

My mind kept wandering back to the strange idea I'd had months before. Well, it wasn't romance. It wasn't historical. It was completely and utterly different from anything I'd ever done before... but maybe that was what I needed most at that point in time. Somehow I needed to find the joy again. Maybe this was just what the muses ordered.

So I gave myself permission to turn off all the voices, all the editorial, to break whatever rules I wanted to break for the sake of the story, to just write what came to me through my Maggie's voice. If I wanted to throw in a kitchen sink, then I was going to do just that, and if I wanted it to be orange, then that's what it was going to be. The story idea had come to me as a mystery, so that's what I wrote. Maggie was a fresh voice in my head, like a friend I had known forever, and she made me laugh amidst the darker goings-on in the story. Another rule broken, ha ha! And all of spookiness made it that much better. Light and dark, funny and yet unnerving, modern and yet rooted in the Old Ways... Ghosts, and witches, and murder, oh my! And the story that came as a result scrubbed away the sadness and despair of ever publishing and it renewed my faith in my writing. I was a writer. Whether I was a writer who would publish or not, the fact that I wrote was a part of me that could never be taken away
unless I allowed it to be.

Why it never occurred to me before to include the paranormal in my writing, I will never know. Maybe I just wasn't ready. Maybe I needed to discover my inner strength as I expanded my writing abilities. Maybe I had to go through everything I did in order to believe in myself in the end. Whatever the reason, by finally letting go and yielding to the wisdom of the universe, I found myself again. It was a long road, a winding one, but in the end one that gave me confidence and satisfaction both. Sometimes I wonder where the road will end, but I don't allow myself to dwell on that thought too long. After all, the joy of any journey should include points of interest along the path taken as much as the end destination itself. Something tells me I would do well not to forget that hard-won lesson again.


Love to all,

Mad
{madly!}
www.MadelynAlt.com

7 comments:

Ann Luongo said...

You know, girl, you always know how to motivate a person. LOL Great post! Thanks and big squishy hugs. Haven't seen you in ages! Hope you're well. :)

Ann

Kara said...

What a fabulous look into how you 'did it'. :)

And...thank you for not giving up. *wink*

Ella said...

So true~~

It's a daunting road to travel, but so rewarding.

Thanks for your friendship.

Hugs
Ella

Stephanie Haussler said...

I finshed A Charmed Death last night (midnightish) and I loved it! Both the Bewitching mysteries were AWESOME! Just the right amount of mystery/sexual tension/magik~Can't wait for the next one! Love Marcus!

Stephanie Haussler said...

I just finished A Charmed Death last night and LOVED IT! Totally hooked on the series and can't wait for the next one! It had the right mix of romance/mystery/magic to it! Love Marcus!

Liz Flaherty said...

How very well told, and your success is so very well deserved,too.

Liz

Jillywiccan said...

I am so glad you persevered and didnt give up!!! your works are fine results of mystery and magick! Mayhem and murder are always thrilling to read! Madelyn I cant wait for more!!!