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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So You Want to be a Writer...

People often ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was in 1968 when I won a poetry contest at school and I had to walk across the stage and accept my award – a book.

In 1968, I lived in a 3-bedroom home with two brothers, two sisters, my parents and a dog. We had one telephone that was permanently affixed to the kitchen wall, though in the 70’s we managed to get a long cord so we could actually talk in the hallway. We had one television set in the den and we got five channels if my brother held the rabbit ears just right. I still remember the thrill of watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, because it was in color.

We chased lightning bugs on summer evenings. It was a thrill when the ice cream truck turned down our street, ringing its bell. And an equal thrill when the mosquito truck came through, spewing its fog all over us. We were oblivious to the dangers of pesticides and SPF was a scientific term that we wouldn’t hear about for years to come.

So when I decided to become an author, I used my dad’s Remington typewriter that he’d had since college days. The ribbon could be used only once and when it reached the end of the spool, it had to be replaced. There was no correction. I used a special eraser to correct mistakes, which was time consuming and left smudges on the manuscript.

I bought one ream of paper at a time and painstakingly drew a thin pencil line one inch from the bottom of each sheet so I’d know when to stop typing. I learned if I typed too fast, the keys would jam in the typewriter and I’d have to stop and pull each one back down.

By 1970, my parents knew I was serious about my writing career and they bought me a portable Smith Corona. This was a huge step up. It came with a carrying case so I could type anywhere. It also used a ribbon with a correction band at the bottom, so I could simply backspace over typos.

I completed my first full-length manuscript with that typewriter in 1972. And for the next 39+ years, I would continue the process of writing, querying publishers and then agents when the publisher’s slush piles disappeared. The agents became the gatekeepers for the big New York publishers. Books were purchased in book stores and a few at the local drug store.

Research was done at the library; the Internet wouldn’t be available to the general public for more than twenty years, and amazon.com wouldn’t go online until 1995.

In the 70’s, I wrote when my son was in his playpen, asleep beside me. He now has children of his own. In the early 80’s, I worked the midnight shift at AT&T and wrote during the day. By then, I’d purchased my first home computer—an Apple III—followed a few years later by a Compaq Portable (which weighed about 40 pounds).

In 1984, my first book was published. Far from being the suspense/thrillers I’d written for years, it was a computer how-to book. It was followed by three more computer books and for the next decade, I churned out teaching materials for a variety of software.

I lamented to my husband once about the struggle to get my suspense/thrillers published.

“You need to be patient,” he chided me. “You want everything to happen overnight.”

“Do you realize I’ve been writing suspense/thrillers for almost 30 years?” I asked. “How long is ‘overnight’ to you?”

It was 2002 before my first work of fiction was published. Since then five contemporary suspense and two historical adventure/suspense have been published. Next year, when my next suspense/thriller is released, it will be 40 years since that initial manuscript was finished.

I’d like to think I hung in there.

6 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I remember those typewriters. I was never so fast the keys stuck though. I wrote my first story over thirty years ago, but it took a complete rewrite a few years ago before it saw the light of day as my first book.
Here's to perseverance!

p.m.terrell said...

I did the same thing, Alex. A manuscript I completed in the mid-70's was rewritten just a few years ago and released as "Exit 22". How do you think your revised version compared to the original? Glad you didn't give up!

Karen S. Elliott said...

I'm 53 and I can recall all of these things ... Disney on Sunday (right after the weekly bath), the manual typewriters, a library, a paper atlas, the encyclopedia.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I remember those old typewriters! The ones with the correction ribbon were a blessing. That and White Out. I think I still have some.

LJCohen said...

Lovely post. Thank you for this, from a writer who remembers manual typewriters and is also hanging in there. :)

p.m.terrell said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Karen, that was hysterical about the "weekly bath" ... We had a set of encyclopedias at home, also, which we cherished. So much has changed!
You all know what it takes to hang in there. The younger generation doesn't know just how lucky they are! (I sound like my mother now, don't I? I walked fifteen miles to school every day, barefoot and uphill in each direction...)