I was a writer, or I thought I was. My English teachers since grade school had conspired to get me published. They gave me guides to publication, names of literary agents they had met, and lists of publishers who would put the ramblings of a child on bookstore shelves for the sake of novelty. I never submitted. One review with the slightest criticism, and the story went to the back of my notebook or the bottom of a drawer.
High school. Fan fiction, mostly as a game between friends. I would write a page and pass it off to see what my writing inspired in my friend. Harry Potter was the usual topic. Everyone knew Harry Potter. When it was Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I wrote it alone. The Harry Potter fics went on the internet. Everything else was private.
I once submitted a piece of fan fiction for my 4-H writing project. It was about "Weird Al" Yankovic. I was fourteen. I won an award.
Then my writing became parody. Every name was a pun. Every story, a pastiche of cliches from my favorite genres - mainly spy movies and space operas. I was reading a lot of Analog, and then I was writing hard science fiction, which is a feat of sheer stupidity for a teenager barely familiar with physics and biology. Stories began as scenes - a woman's crashed space pod in the middle of a frozen desert, a girl musing on the faraway whistle of a train as she drifted to sleep, a grandfather's eyes warm brown like the gingerbread in the oven. Sentiment and dripping prose replaced the thin jokes as I entered my junior year.
Mr. Ark, who looked and sometimes dressed like Mark Twain, was my editor. I dropped stories on his desk, and he handed them back in yellow envelopes stamped "Top Secret" and "Classified". The pages were covered with red marks - grammar mistakes, spelling errors, cliches and dead-horse tropes. I corrected every one until the day he would hand me the story clean with a hastily-scrolled "Wow!" in the corner. My last year in 4-H, I submitted one of these clean stories for the short story project. At the county level, it was perfect. The judge beamed at me during the interview, elated that a 17-year-old could express so much about a time she had never experienced. At state level, the judge was an amateur spy expert, and my tale of two women caught up in the pre-World War II purge of the USSR's intelligence agencies had apparently sent her into a rage. "Komissariat", the masterpiece of my senior year in high school, had offended her vast knowledge of the history of the USSR (which, according to her, was the culmination of yearly trips to the spy museum in Washington, DC). Like every story before it, "Komissariat" went to the bottom of some drawer and disappeared. Five years of research on the time and culture later, I could hardly think of the story without grimacing at my flimsy understanding of Russia and her language.
Passionate essays dominated my college writing. My political alignment changed by the day, often by the assignment. I could write a convincing paper condemning the very behavior I had spent a month exulting. When I wrote fiction, it presented self-centered characters speaking from their eccentric viewpoints. My fiction classes loved them, but my professor pulled me aside after class and said, "Katrina, you keep writing character sketches like persuasive essays. They come in with a strange idea, and the reader comes out almost wanting it. I need you to write something else. Write about characters who realize at some point that they have flaws."
I did that. I wrote two stories - "Not Me" and "Ruth's Game", both thinly-disguised autobiography. The professor loved them. The class didn't. They both went into the trash.
As a film major, I had to take screen writing classes, which were easy to pass as long as you knew a few words of English. Dialogue became my new obsession. I wrote new episodes of The Simpsons and Buffy for one class, set a Victorian sanitorium on fire in another, and finally sent five friends on a trip to a science fiction convention. I never finished a screenplay longer than an hour, and the two stories I actually filmed ("The Tale of Sir Phillip" and "The Magic Cabinet") came out stilted. My screen writing was, perhaps, no better than my short stories.
My final project for advanced fiction was a short story called "Times Beach", perhaps the only work I still read with any pride. It was a disjointed series of happenings one evening in a deserted town called Times Beach. Maybe I can put it in a short story anthology someday. Maybe.
Almost two years after college graduation, I had written little more than a few emails and blog entries. I was on vacation in Ohio when I started writing again - a short story about Snake and Otacon from Metal Gear Solid. The first scene was solid - moonlit snow on the edge of a black forest. But nothing happened. My clever little storyline seemed inconsequential and contrived when I set to write it. It's still unfinished.
The Joy of Battle began with a dream, once again involving snow though this dream happened in early May of 2010. I dreamt that I was the Joy, searching a research facility somewhere in Poland, and I tripped. The young man who helped me up had the palest blond hair and an off-kilter smile - the Sorrow. It was going to be short and light-hearted. My plan was to end long before D-day and skip ahead to an epilogue in1947. Then Peace Walker was released, complete with the intriguing revelation that the Joy had been sent on a false mission to America to assassinate John von Neumann. Clearly, I had to work that mission into my story. After ten chapters, I knew I couldn't skip D-day, so I rewrote my outline to include it. By twenty chapters, I decided to make the V2 arc the focus of the story though it took me over thirty chapters to get there. Originally, that would have been simple - destroying a few rockets near Omaha Beach before Joy's inevitable c-section, but my research gave me a different idea. Why not focus on the mobile launchers the Germans had actually invented? It would give me a chance to further the intrigue of the main story, which at that point was starting to stagnate.
I wrote happily and steadily, publishing chapter after chapter on fanfiction.net, not really caring whether anyone read it. Reviews started appearing after the first few chapters and continued into the teens. Then they stopped. Desperate for some sort of feedback, I asked my DeviantArt watchers if one of them could beta read. Two offered. The first corrected a few typos and then said, "Nice job!" The second gave me a little more depth... at first. She would pick out specific scenes she liked and ask questions about what was to come (mostly so that I could see what, at specific points in the story, was of the most interest to a reader). By the thirties, she could hardly say more than that she liked it and that I needed to "keep writing".
My husband was still back in the early twenties, and I had to drag opinions out of him like state secrets. One day, he said, "Why are they spending so much time in hotels?" What? I went back and read the story from the beginning. Hotel. Another hotel. First hotel. Parachuting. Old house. Traveling. Sleeping car on train (like a hotel). And it continued like that, chapter after chapter without action and without a definite plot. I brought this issue to my beta readers who I felt should have said something earlier. One said she had noticed it from the beginning but didn't want to make me feel bad then proceeded to say that I was a terrible writer because even the worst published authors have a distinct plot obvious from the first couple of chapters. That felt really good, and by "good", I mean "devastating". What use was a beta reader who didn't want to help me until I was so far into the story that it no longer mattered? My second reader said, "I like it. I don't care what anyone says. Keep writing. I want to get to the good part." The good part. This stuff is just the lead-up to the good part. It's like eating an Oreo for the filling in the center. You keep scraping it into a little pile as you try to get the cookie over with before getting to "the good part".
I'm not a writer. I'd like to be, but I'm not. As with every project, I put my soul and energy into this almost exclusively. I wanted practice at long-form writing, but now I have to finish it because I have people waiting for "the good part". So now I am trying to rush through it without seeming like I'm rushing. It's a tough line to walk. Each chapter ends up longer than the last as I realize I have to solve this problem and then that one before I can go on to the next.
I sound like I hate my story. I don't. I love it. Its flaws are innumerable, and they are my flaws, but I can't imagine how I could have told the same story without them. The plot is messy and slow, but it was practice for future novels.
I want to be a writer, and I will be a writer. I will be published someday, in a tangible book with my name on the cover, maybe embossed in giant capital letters bigger than the title. For now, I just want to finish what I started so that I can look back and know what I did wrong.