Many writers are familiar with the concept of the Hero’s Journey, as elucidated by Joseph Campbell, which forms the backbone and structure of mythic narratives across all cultures, and strongly influences modern storytelling as we know it.
Every writer undertakes his/her own journey as well, beginning as an aspiring writer with an idea and a dream and setting forth in pursuit of becoming a published author. In this journey the writer him-/herself is the hero, facing all a hero’s necessary obstacles along the way. In effect, the writer is authoring his/her own life story while simultaneously writing the story of someone else, which is often the writer’s life story yet again, only this time in camouflage.
Author and activist Mary McCarthy wrote that, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are all the hero of our own story” (“Characters in Fiction”, Partisan Review, March/April 1961). This is the story of me and the view from here: my writer’s journey, thus far.
My journey began in earnest in 1996 in my grade eleven creative writing class. Though I’d always been interested in and tried my hand at writing before that time, 1996 marked the year I started learning some of technical aspects of the craft: voice, character development, dialogue. My teacher was truly brilliant. To me, his brilliance even managed to overshadow his arrogance and extreme self-satisfaction over being a published poet. He hated fantasy, which was my genre of choice at the time, yet still gave me excellent marks on the work I submitted to him toward the end of the course.
(And no, him having given me high marks is not the basis upon which I base his literary intellect, or at least not the sole basis.)
For my final project, I wrote a one-hundred-page novella in fifteen days, an event which resulted in the appearance of two erstwhile undiagnosed medical conditions: (1) the emergence of what I refer to as my verbosity gene, that is, a tendency to write everything twice as long as it’s meant to be (case in point, the assignment was for a 50-page novella), and (2) a clinical case of Obsessive Writer’s Disorder. Which I’m sure needs no explanation.
My teacher told me I had a natural feel for dialogue, something I’d always intuitively believed about my work yet never thought to try and articulate myself (verbosity gene notwithstanding). This compliment represented my first formal inclination that I someday might turn out to be pretty good at this writing thing.
And so, the following year, I decided to take the plunge into attempting publication, and submitted a short story to the Sword and Sorceress anthology (Sword and Sorceress #15) edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Though I’d always found the quality of stories a little uneven this anthology, I consistently enjoyed the works of Stephanie Shaver (particularly “Her Mother’s Sword” from S&S#10, and “Jewel-Bright” from S&S#13) and Vera Nazarian (her “Bonds of Light” from S&S#10 remains my all-time favourite story from any edition of the anthology), and thought it would be cool to be published alongside them only a few years removed from the age at which they both made their first professional sales.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be: I received one of those infamous “Sorry-it’s-just-not-right-for-us” rejection letters, along with a polite reminder that a Canadian American stamp (i.e. the type of stamp someone in Canada would use to mail something to someone in the U.S.) is quite useless for an American SASE bound for Canada. (Oops!) My writer’s journey was off to a humbling start.
That same year (1997), I entered university and was necessarily forced to focus my attention on things other than writing and getting published. Especially when I nearly ended up on academic probation at the end of my first year.
I continued to write short stories over my summer vacations, however each of these stories (all set in the same world) really wanted to be individual scenes or chapters in a novel given the glut of backstory each one contained. I knew they’d never be marketable. Then, during the summer of my third year of university (2000) – the first summer that, rather than return to my home province of Nova Scotia, I remained in Ontario to take summer courses – I wrote a completely different story – a true short story – and decided it was time to once again seek publication.
I submitted this new story on and off until early 2002, and this time, my work received an entirely different reception. While I never actually managed to sell the piece, it generated all sorts of constructive and positive feedback from editors:
One wrote, “Good luck to you with this story”, which to me suggested he believed someone might buy it even if he ultimately did not.
Another wrote that I’d handled a familiar theme well, but that the ending was ambiguous, and took the time to explain to me in a full-page letter the source of his confusion.
Yet another wrote, “When you send this story elsewhere, we suggest a catchier title.” When you send it elsewhere, as opposed to “If you send it”, or “This story is suitable to be sent elsewhere”. “When” seemed positive to me.
Another editor wrote that he found the beginning a little ambiguous (there really is no accounting for tastes), but encouraged me to send in something else, as did several other editors ask to see other stories by me.
And then the best encouragement of all:
The writing is good, but just not what we need at the moment.
A professional editor of a fantasy magazine told me my writing was good.
I would have married the guy if I could.