Monday, August 6, 2012

Never Thought I Could Tell a Story

Mysterious Mondays

Never Thought I Could Tell a Story

Aspiring writers, like aspirers everywhere, often want short cuts to success, whether they define "success" as finding a publisher, winning an award, making the best-seller list, raking in the big bucks, or just completing the book or story or article. There may be some short cuts out there, and no doubt we can all save ourselves some time and pain by following those who have gone before, but for the most part the path of a serious writer is a long and twisty one.

Take mine, for instance. I've been a writer for a long time. Forever, I think. But other than a "novel" I wrote and illustrated when I was about 8 years old, all my writing was nonfiction until recently. First came the academic articles about North African and Middle Eastern folklore and culture, and about the folklore of gender, and a couple of papers about literature in there as well. In other words, I wrote about fiction, but I didn't make things up, at least not intentionally.

Then I shifted to commercial nonfiction. I published several articles in The World & I, and I took one of those, retooled it, and sent it to Dog Fancy. They bought it, and I was off and running, writing more articles for Dog Fancy and their individual breed magazines, Cat Fancy, The AKC Gazette, and others. In my other life, I had founded and co-founded two canine rescue programs, and, in a those dark ages before the Internet and Facebook, I decided to write the book I needed when I first started rescuing dogs. Betty McKinney at Alpine Publications liked my proposal and published my first book, Breed Rescue, and the book went on to win the Maxwell Award for Best General Interest Book in the Dog Writers Association.

After Breed Rescue, another 20 books fell into place (four of them never made it to print because the series were cancelled, but I wrote 'em and was paid for 'em!). Six of my books won major peer-reviewed competitions, and several more were finalists. Fiction, though, still lurked beyond my grasp. To tell you the truth, I didn't think I could be a fiction writer. The whole idea of coming up with a story, with characters who did things, felt things, wanted things, and with plot turns and sub plots and all the other doodads (that's a literary term) that make up a piece of fiction just boggled my mind. And then one day...

(My mother was a great storyteller. She immigrated as a child to to the wild west of Alberta, Canada, sometime around 1912, and she had a wealth of characters and events big and small to work with. Work with them she did, but she never wrote them down. I kick myself now for not recording her while I could. Here she is with some of her raw material -- she's in the middle. So why did fiction -- story -- feel so elusive to me?)

... I found myself in a small critique group with three fiction writers. They arrived every other week with chapters of their new novels (two mysteries and a mainstream), and I arrived with  nonfiction about, say, leash training or intestinal parasites for a book about dogs or cats. After a few months of that, I craved a story to tell, but I still couldn't seem to find one, and I had no idea how to make one up.

And then one day I was driving home from an obedience trial, and an opening line popped into my head. It was brilliant! And not only did I have a brilliant opening line, but I could see the whole brilliant book -- not the cover or spine, but the guts! I had a story. All I had to do was write it....

That was ten years ago. That story -- Drop Dead on Recall -- will be in print and e-form this coming October. It's a better story now, thanks to input from several smart advance readers (thank you all, but especially my smart friends Linda Wagner and Ronda Wells), my smart agent Josh Getzler, and the smart members of several critique groups along the way. I'm working on the sequel to Drop Dead and on another long fiction project, I've published one short story and have a couple more in the works, as well as a long list of story ideas. Fiction! I write fiction! (And yes, I still write nonfiction.)

That brilliant opening sentence? Long gone. And with it the idea that I can't make things up. So if you want to tell stories but aren't sure you know how, here's my advice: Begin. Nothing happens until you begin. And trust me, if I can make up a story, you can, too.


Mysterious Mondays are one-third of Sheila Webster Boneham's Writers and Other Animals blog, running (surprise!) on Mondays and focus on mysteries and thrillers and the people who write them. Check out the Weekly Blog Schedule on this page for more information. Writing on Wednesdays looks at all sorts of writing and the work (and play) of the writer, and offers resources and writing prompts for writers at all points along the path. Artsy Fartsy Fridays is a collage built of art of all sorts, including writing, photography, painting, drawing, and books in which other art forms play important roles. Come take a look - who knows what you'll find!

Sheila Webster Boneham's first Animals in Focus Mystery, Drop Dead on Recall, will be out in October. For more information, visit Sheila's Fiction Page. You can also connect with Sheila on Facebook.


This post originally ran on April 30, 2012. Sheila is taking a break during August and rerunning some earlier posts. New posts resume Sept. 3!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Sheila for that information. It is encouraging to know it took you so long to get the novel published. Yes. Readers are valuable friends. Can't wait to read Drop Dead on Recall in Oct.