My Transformative Writing Year

I’m sitting here five days before Christmas crunching on a lone taco shell, watching Avengers: Endgame, and contemplating how my life went sideways. 

Year two of the pandemic sure has been one chaotic mess for writing. Words spilled out onto the page, then dried to a trickle. Successes were few and far between while failures stuck around like an obnoxious house guest. 

In short, 2021 was a mixed bag. 

I measured success in 2020 with a published novella and two short story acceptances.  

This year was a cold, lonely Siberian stretch of nothingness for eight months, all toil and little reward. 

Rejections? I had ‘em in spades. 

Words written? I wrote more than ever before. Short stories, novels, part of a novel. I attended #5amwritersclub events online and lamented my lack of Twitter followers. 

Grim, dejected, and self-destructive was how I spent the first months of 2021. 

Then the stubborn pessimist took a vacation and the cautious optimist showed his face.

Boy howdy this year has been weird!

Traffic to this website trickled upward. I met people who inspired me and whose work left a huge impact. And I scored a once-in-a-lifetime publishing deal. 

From floundering for relevance and stuck in limbo to filling pages with writing. Mind you, the writing wasn’t necessarily GOOD, but the main thing was I was writing.

Words is words, folks, and a shitty first draft is better than no draft at all.

Now let’s peel back the pathos and examine the past twelve months of literary carnage:

1. I lacked mad writing skills, then I attended a writing retreat. 

In April I attended the virtual writing retreat, Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys. Created for members of the #5amwritersclub by the incredibly talented Ralph Walker, the retreat gave writers tools for enhancing their work through various group exercises. We learned how to add flesh to the character’s bare bones and make them convincing. Readers are interested in relatable characters. The retreat covered developing the antagonist, secondary characters, and ratcheting up tension in your story. 

The retreat leveled up my writing skills. No more floundering in the dark with two-dimensional protagonists for me. 

Read about my experience with the retreat here.

2. I nearly gave up, but got inspired before I could quit. 

The first months of 2021 were rough. My stories failed to connect with editors and my novel read like a poorly-worded manifesto from an overtly-caffeinated college student.

I was about to quit and beg my old boss for my job back (the horror, the horror) when I saw John Wiswell deliver his Nebula Award acceptance speech. John won a Nebula this year for his excellent short story “Open House on Haunted Hill.” If you’re not familiar with John’s work, please check it out. 

During his speech, this part resonated with me, to the point where I was nearly blubbing in front of my laptop:

“We should never lose sight that singular excellence pales before the greatness of community. Saying that, there’s one other author I cannot end this speech without thanking. It’s a little gauche, but I hope they’re listening. Because my story, ‘Open House on Haunted Hill,’ was rejected several times before Diabolical Plots gave it a chance. And in my career my various stories were rejected over 800 times before I won this award tonight. And that’s why I hope this author is listening. You, who think you’re not a good enough writer because you don’t write like someone else. You, who haven’t finished a draft because your project seems too quirky or too daunting. You, who are dispirited after eating so many rejection emails. You, who are going to write the things that will make me glad I’m alive to read them. What the field needs is for you to be different, and to be true to your imagination. Please, in the next couple weeks, go back to that document. Finish that story, and then go write the next one, and the next one. You don’t know when you’re going to come into your own. So endure as you can. And always take care of yourself. Because I toiled for years trying to just sell any story at all. I spent over a decade publishing stories before I got this platform to say this to you tonight. There is no story I want to read more than yours. Thank you, for what your words will mean to me, tomorrow.”

John’s words inspired me. 

This year, I wrote my quirky short stories. I wrote my merman romance, my alien comedian, my witch with dementia. I wrote my alt-history Lovecraft, my Death-breaks-the-rules, my biker gang monster hunters. 

I wrote them and was rejected over and over. 

I spent many frustrating days fine-tuning my stories. I revised, had them beta read, and revised again. Nights once filled with self-doubt and anguish now yielded fruitful results. I birthed these scruffy word gremlins into existence and cleaned them up. 

I still send them out, because I believe some editor will show interest and publish them. 

While I’m currently unknown and will probably die an obscure and broke, at least I sprinkled the universe with my words. Thanks, John.

That brings me to…

3. I didn’t make a single story sale this year, but I wrote ten short stories.

The biggest dry spell in a long time happened this year. Not one sale. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Oh, I tried. I submitted stories to every fiction magazine, literary journal, and anthology I could. Each time my writing was met with the obligatory form rejection or personalized rejection letter. How many rejections? Thirty-eight, to be exact. Some of these rejections were positive and offered friendly advice. I get that rejection is part of the business, and writers should get used to crashing and burning. 

But twelve months of no sales really plays with your brain. 

Impostor syndrome and self-doubt came calling. They hunkered down in my head and wouldn’t stop whispering to me, especially at night: “Loooooser! You’re a loooooser!” 

Despite this overwhelming mountain of rejection, I wrote ten short stories. Writers who write anything during this pandemic should be commended. You literally enter a rotten headspace overwhelmed with depression and anxiety and squirt out more word babies. That’s a freaking super power.

Writing is hard, folks. 

Writing during a pandemic? Even harder.

Curling up on couch in a fetal position while binging the Great British Baking Show and wondering where the people you dated in high school are now became my new normal. 

The ten stories I wrote in 2021 ranged from science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Most of them probably won’t ever see the light of day, but there are a few I’m still fighting for. 

4. I didn’t sell a single copy of my novella on Amazon this year, but the audiobook was released.

Gargoyles & Absinthe didn’t do so hot this year sales-wise. There are only a few reviews on Amazon and no sales for print books this year. I don’t know if any ebooks sold at all. Viewing the sales numbers proved torturous, and each time I logged on and saw nothing, my heart sank a little more. 

Despite the lack of any Amazon sales, the audiobook for Gargoyles & Absinthe was released in the spring. I want to thank my publisher Aurelia Leo and narrator Clara Abbott for the excellent job for breathing life into these characters. 

The audiobook is available here if you’re curious.

Because it’s an audiobook, it’s available in libraries across the country for your listening pleasure. 

5. I didn’t gain many followers on Twitter, but I found a beta reader and editor via Twitter.

Twitter, I can’t quit you, you grotesque bird site. 

I don’t get how certain people are literal magnets for followers on your platform, while potential followers stay away droves. It’s all about engagement, interaction, and hashtags. 

Hey, interacting with people is hard, especially for an introvert like me. 

Tweeting anything drains me.   

Even though I’m not destined to net thousands of followers, I did find a beta reader and an editor. I am grateful for Ellen Symons and Derek McPhee for the time and attention they gave my manuscript. Their valuable feedback kicked ass, and propelled my writing in a better direction. Thanks again. Y’all rock. 

6. I was unemployed for most of the year, then landed job as college professor.

This one truly surprised me. I’ve been unemployed since March 2020 when the newspaper I worked for laid me off because the pandemic hit hard and advertising dried up. Last December, I submitted my resume and references to a community college and waited.

And waited.

And waited for months until late August when I received an email asking if I’d be interested in an interview. Long story short, I’m an adjunct professor and completed my first semester teaching English composition. 

For years, the thought of teaching in a classroom terrified me. Thankfully in pandemic America, we have Zoom, so virtual classes are a thing. I might have found my dream career. Here’s hoping 2022 brings more instruction time and opportunities in the education field for this budding professor. 

Besides, I totally rock tweed jackets, so I nailed that academic aesthetic. 

7. I didn’t get agents interested in my novel, but signed a multi-book publishing deal with an indie publisher.

This one is huge. Really huge. Like finding the Holy Grail underneath your auntie’s couch while spring cleaning huge. I queried dozens of agents in 2021 about my novel Accursed Son, an urban fantasy I’ve been toiling over for the past few years. This year 21 agents rejected my queries. This summer I hired an editor, reworked the manuscript, and sent it out to a few small independent publishers. 

Shadow Spark Publishing accepted my novel in September and I signed a four book publishing deal. Accursed Son will be published in December 2022, the first book in the Martyr’s Vow Series. Thanks, Jessica Moon and Mandy Russell for believing in my work enough to sign me. I can’t wait for the world to meet Armand and Vonnie next year. 

8. I didn’t win a single online pitch event, but did win National Novel Writing Month.

For 2021, I take my victories where they’re found. The train to Suckville pulled out of the station when agents ignored my pitches during Pitch Wars and PitMad. (Insert “sad trombone” SFX here.)  

I was slightly successful with RevPit, where editor Jeni Chappelle offered great advice with my novel’s revisions. She deserves thanks for recommending craft books and a sharing her observations after reading my manuscript.   

Pitches might not be my thing, but National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) didn’t disappoint.

NaNoWriMo challenges writers to complete 50,000 words each November. The eleventh month of every year is filled with flustered scribes fuming over their wordcounts and either fulfilling them to the bitter end or quitting after five days. 

I won NaNoWriMo last year with a mystery. This year I won with Book 2 of the Martyr’s Vow Series. I’m not discussing the deets, but I’m a plantser (a writer who both plans and pantses their plots) and this story is warped as hell.

For me, NaNoWriMo is a huge pile of stress with anxiety on top. It’s an exercise designed to get you to focus on writing, one demanding utmost attention and discipline. No more distractions, no more procrastination.No Internet or TV. Butts in seats, fingers on keyboards. Your work comes first. 

Just what writers need, another arbitrary deadline. 

While I wasn’t nearly as focused as I was last year, NaNoWriMo helped me get a jump-start on my next book, and that’s still worthy of a victory dance.  

Here’s hoping 2022 brings more opportunities and challenges for all my fellow scribes. Keep writing, my darling book nerds. Onward!

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