Monday, September 1, 2014

The Birth of an Author

Sometimes someone will ask how I got into writing, and I'll usually mention a quote by Toni Morrison "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."  That really was the thing that pushed me over the edge.

But the real story starts much, much earlier.

Then the dinosaur eats the teacher!
I first learned to read quite early, before I attended any school.  I have no memory of this, but apparently I thought it was neat that my three older brothers could read and wanted some of this for myself.  So according to my parents, I climbed into my father's lap and asked him to teach me to read at age 3.  By the time I finished 1st grade I was reading at a 6th grade level and had written my first little story about a dinosaur.  I don't remember what it was like, just that it included dinosaurs, which fascinated me.

As I went though school I wrote story after story.  The tale of a boy who had a griffin friend.  The story of a man who could turn invisible and was eventually killed by the government.  The story of an alien who came to earth to gather some water and the troubles he faced.  On and on it went through my life.

Eventually I began drawing comics, and focused on that form of storytelling.  I wanted to be a comic book writer and artist like many young people.  I got pretty good at it, and knew people in the industry I could use for a foot in the door.  When Dark Horse Comics first started up, I was in touch with and friendly with some of the people involved in that company.

However, I found that it took so much time and energy writing and drawing comics I could not keep up any remotely productive pace.  I set aside the dream and focused on illustration work.  The idea of writing for a living never occurred to me.

All my life from the earliest I can remember, I have made up stories.  I would make them up as I walked to and from school, as I played outside, as I explored the forests behind the family home, even while being punished and sent to my room, I would sit quietly and make up stories.  Conversations would roll through my head, characters and situations were developed, plots were worked out.

To go to sleep  I have always, even as a little child, created a story and followed it along like a movie serial.  I start the tale up, and go to sleep, then the next night carry on the tale from the last point and advance it.  Weeks go by making up these stories.  I have one that I have gone through several variants of and maybe one day it will see print.

In 1979 my older brother Joel (whose birthday it is today - happy birthday!) introduced me to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  I was 13 at the time, and we both learned at a little game store in town called Stuff and Nonsense.  Every Saturday, the owner of the store would teach people how to create characters then run them through a little bit of a huge dungeon he had designed.  I was hooked.

I ran games almost from the very beginning, inventing scenarios and adventures, dungeons, characters, monsters, settings, maps, and so on.  For decades, I have been creating adventures and running them, playing out the games with other people.  

Like gems to a gamer
For those unfamiliar with how role playing games work, they're very similar to improvisational theater: you create your character and then tell the Game Master (GM) what you do, play out conversations and dialog on the fly, and use rules and dice to resolve challenges and mechanical questions.  The GM plays everyone else in the world, from rats to deities, and he has to come up with the personalities, dialog, schemes, ambitions, and actions of all of them, off the cuff, while all the time trying to move the game along a plot or storyline.

I did this for over 30 years.  Without realizing it, I was practicing storytelling without a net, for a small audience.  And still I kept inventing stories in my head.  People started telling me I should be a writer, that I had a skill for description and storytelling.  I thought that was flattering but I had an image of an author that I didn't care for.

To me the writer was an alcoholic that struggled with their work, then once it was done had to slog through rewrites and editing for month after month of drudgery and misery.  That sounded awful to me; I wanted no part of it.  But the comments of people had planted a seed in my subconscious.

Finally, I saw that Toni Morrison quote and thought "well maybe, why  not?"  In November of 2007, I sat down and determined that I'd do it, just to see if I could get it done.  I wrote every day to get a story told by the end of the month.  I got about half of my upcoming book Life Unworthy written in a rough form, and didn't finish.  But the joy of writing and the idea of being able to do so was born in me.

But I knew my skill as an writer was not up to the task of Life Unworthy, yet.  The concepts and themes I wanted to present, I did not feel skilled enough to tackle, not yet.  So I put it aside and began work on a simpler book based on two ideas: a fantasy version of a Louis L'Amour frontier book, and the image of a man leading enemies away from a caravan to protect it like a mother quail.  And I started writing.

I didn't suffer for each page.  I didn't bleed like the saying goes.  I enjoyed every moment, and when I wasn't writing I looked forward to when I could.  For me, the problem is that I have to restrict the amount of time I write each day or I'll tire myself out and won't be able to keep going. 

And when it came to rewrites, I found that I truly enjoyed the process of re-reading my book.  Instead of being a dreary task, I savored carefully fixing problems, shaping scenes, and crafting a better story each pass through.  It turned out that I really, really like writing.  And you'd think that with my life of writing pretty much constantly, that would have been a really obvious conclusion but sometimes I can be pretty dumb.  Often, perhaps.

So I'm an author.  I have two works of fiction out, several gaming books, and a lot more on the way. I have more ideas and stories scribbled up in thumbnail sketches than I will have productive years to write them in; better than the alternative, I suppose.  C.S. Lewis eventually had no more ideas to write about and stopped after a certain point, which is truly a tragedy.

It took some getting used to, since over my life my plan has been so different.  At first I wanted to be an archaeologist, then a translator, then a comic book writer/artist, then an illustrator.  And all that time I was writing and not paying any attention.  Turns out I'm a author.  Maybe some day I'll be a financially successful author.

Until then, I'll keep telling stories.  Its just who I am.