I recently finished my 4th residency for my master’s program and I’ve had some time to reflect on my progress as a writer. I’ve enjoyed every residency but each has its own flavor. After the first one, I wasn’t really sure that the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program was going to work out. I’d spent several years prior to starting the program trying to improve my skill and my knowledge-base about writing as a profession and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new. My opinion on that changed after the second residency, but looking back now, I can see the cumulative effects of the program.
After each semester I’d taken stock of how much my writing skill had increased, if at all. After the semester that ended last winter, I felt I’d reached a new plateau, but after spending a full semester with Timons Esaias as my mentor, my skill seems to have gone up an order of magnitude, instead of incrementally. I more easily recognize patterns in writing that I couldn’t see before. Common mistakes that a lot of writers make, especially on the first draft, stand out like a strobing beacon.
This semester the thing that really emerged was understanding what it means to give a character agency, to really get under their skin and speak through their point of view, but that’s only part of it. The craft of writing is making sense. I look back thinking I’d learned a few things, only to find a few months later that I’ve grown even more. I honestly thought that I was getting it before, but the more I learn the more I see that this is a journey with many plateaus.
That’s not to say that I don’t screw up in the execution sometimes. But I can usually spot when I make a mistake much more easily. I know how to fix it. It’s still hard to see all the mistakes in your own work. Having a writing partner that knows the craft is invaluable. I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve worked with from the very beginning of this odyssey.
Knowing simple things like how to tag, basic grammar, and how to structure a story are all pieces to the puzzle. The more pieces that I gather and put in place the more the picture makes sense. I know this is a journey that will continue for the rest of my life, but I was surprised by how much more I am coming to understand.
When I look back at how far I’ve come in the last six years it’s pretty amazing. I have to say thanks to C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher, and Patty Briggs for not humiliating me on the very first piece I send out as a fledgling writer. I think I still have that piece somewhere, but it must have been horrible. They were so gracious and encouraging. I may have quit trying if they hadn’t been so accommodating and wonderful. I’d submitted for a writer’s conference at MISCON many years ago, and thanks to Justin Barba for putting me in their group. He was incredible as well, knowing that they were some of my writing heroes; he really hooked me up.
But I didn’t actually make it to the Con. I missed my flight after spending nearly $600 on a plane ticket. I overslept the very early wake-up call and arrived at the airport about fifteen minutes from departure time, but the airline wouldn’t let me get on the jet. I could pay another couple of hundred dollars to switch to another airline or try later in the day as a standby. I drove an hour and a half back home and then returned in the afternoon for another try, but was shut out again. I was beside myself with disappointment and anger, just as much at myself as anyone.
You have to understand that something like that never happened to me. I fly for a living, and I can’t recall ever missing a show time in twenty-seven years. But it happened. I called Justin and he said he already had my stuff and would give it to the group to critique but he couldn’t make any promises. Justin is a great guy. I figured the authors probably had enough on their plate and nothing would happen.
Surprise! I got a lovely email from C.J. and a packet in the mail with all my critiques in it. I couldn’t believe it. C.J. actually gave me her phone number and asked me to call her so we could go over it together. I’ll never forget it. She and Jane really helped put me on the right path.
It still remains to be seen if I’ll make it as a novelist, but it won’t be from a lack of effort and a lot of help from others. I’ve come a long way, maybe far enough at this point to finish a sellable manuscript. I’m confident. I have a great support group in my family, the Seton Hill WPF alum, and my writing partners. I hope to make them all proud. I look forward to seeing what the future holds.