How I Wrote My First Book in a Rage and Survived

Inspired by a recent post over at storytelling nomad’s blog about authors who are evasive when answering the question “how did I start writing,” I thought I’d elaborate a bit, personally.

I’ve already mentioned my notebooks/journals.  After reading the entire series of Amelia’s notebooks, I wanted to write funny records just like hers.  My first couple notebooks had a lot of doodles similar to Amelia’s notebooks and perhaps slightly copycatting the Lizzie McGuire cartoon (remember that show??)  My desire to keep journals was further fueled by the Princess Diaries series.  All through my childhood, I was the bookiest bookworm you’ve ever met and my parents further encouraged my writing goal by sending me to book-writing-and-making summer camps at the local community college and reading camps at the local library. (These, I insist, were NOT lame.  I enjoyed the experiences very much and am extremely fond of the little paperback books I made.  They sit in a place of honor on my shelves).

Anywho.  That’s how I started writing.

At those summer camps, I wrote a couple of short picture books which usually starred a talking animal as the main character.  But my first real chapter book was a totally different experience.

I was in 11th grade and was in an AP English-Creative Writing class.  My teacher was not terribly enthusiastic about teaching and was usually unprepared.  That particular day he had given a little speech entitled “Every Great Book Idea Has Already Been Written So It Is Pointless to Try and Write A Book.”  I’m not sure why he thought this was a good topic for a Creative Writing class, but I was angry.  I went home after school, locked myself in my room, and wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel about a curmudgeony old king who’s family motto was that life wasn’t worth living because every experience had already been lived at least once before and about the two kids that go on a quest to prove the king wrong.  It took me nine hours and I never went back to edit it.  But if I ever get it published, I am sending a copy to my old teacher and:

  1. Hope that he feels the sting of my pen; or,
  2. Realizes the error of his thinking and realizes that awesome new books are published every day, the book in his hand being a key example.

Then I went off to college.  I wanted to major in Creative Writing, but every college I visited told me that I needed to double major–or at least minor–in something else too, or I would have nothing to write about.  Being that historical fiction is my favorite genre of all time, I double-majored in history.

The capstone of the history major is a class called Research and Writing and I decided to make the project do double the work for me.  I picked a historical figure who’s never had a middle-grade fiction book written about her (I’m keeping it a secret so that my book is still the first.  So those of you who know what I did my project on…shhh!  Our little secret!) and then spent four semesters researching her.  I read over 100 books, a dozen articles, watched twenty movies and television shows about her, and even listened to every single song that references her in some way.

You know those authors who say they have to know the character as well as their best friend before they can write the book?  Let me just tell you, I knew the character inside and out.  Writing the book was easy after all that research.  (It took longer than nine hours, of course; it wasn’t that easy.  A semester for the first draft and four more months for the desperately needed rewrite).

How did you get into writing?  What was your experience writing your first book like?  What inspired (or enraged) you?

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16 thoughts on “How I Wrote My First Book in a Rage and Survived

  1. Amanda Surowitz says:

    I think I first got into writing when I played pretend games with my neighbor when I was little. I didn’t write any of our games down, but we would go through describing who we pretended to be, a little bit of history, and we’d go on an adventure. Writing my first book took about four and a half years. I started because my brother tried writing a book, and mine was a terrible mash of other books, movies, and his video games. I’m serious about the second one I’m writing (correction; rewriting), which was inspired by a thought in 9th grade. I randomly wondered, “What if Pandora’s Box was actually a person?” The story now has absolutely nothing to do with Pandora, her box, or anything Greek, but it’s grown and matured.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I like it! I’ve gone back and reread some of my old short stories and I can totally tell what authors and books I was reading at the time. It’s painfully obvious to me now and I can’t believe nobody called me out on it at the time.

      Your second book sounds awesome, I love the inspiration. I hope it goes well for you!!!

  2. Katy says:

    Yay! Thanks for the shout out…and for breaking down your writing process! I find it fascinating how different people begin writing and I really wish people would talk about it more because the evolution of a small idea to a finished novel is really quite extraordinary!

    • hannahkarena says:

      Haha, no problem on both accounts! That’s always my favorite part of author lectures: when they explain their writing beginnings and their book inspiration :]

  3. Shawn Bailey says:

    It’s awesome that your parents encouraged you. Go fix them dinner this weekend. Do it. You’re lucky.

    I started my first novel before I was out of high school and so my parents sent me to… Architecture school. Of course.

    Enjoyed the article.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Haha, they were pretty awesome. Though my dad did try, every day, to talk me into becoming either a teacher or a nurse. It wasn’t super pushy, but more encouraging and repeated in a I’m-worried-you’ll-never-get-a-job voice and every day I’d return with the same argument–“but that’s not what I want to dooooo Dad”–and he’d withdraw until the next day. Don’t worry, I’ll cook them something.

      Wow, writing a novel is punishing enough, and then architecture school? Have you ever read Asterios Polyp? It’s a great example of how to combine architecture knowledge and beautiful writing. http://nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/57736/

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by!

  4. Gev says:

    I love, love, love hearing how other writers got started! I’ve pretty much been doing it all my life. I remember being in the car as my Mom drove my sister and me to school one morning. We were going over the Lincoln Avenue bridge, crossing the Passaic River, when I thought, “I’m going to be a writer.” And I was only 10. I wrote in secret, because my older sister was The Writer in the family, while I was regarded as The Musician. Funnyhow things work out, isn’t it???

    • hannahkarena says:

      I love hearing the “birth of a writer” stories too! Did your sister and you end up sharing the family title, or did you swap roles?

  5. lindseycrittenden says:

    LIke everyone else here, I used to make up stories with friends, write in secret, and read like a fiend. I would stare at license plates and street signs and re-arrange the letters infinite ways to make up words, then ask my mother, What’s “exfik” mean? Which drove her nuts, I think, though she pushed me in my literary attempts. (I still kept most of them secret.) Maybe that means I was an innate Jumble player more than a writer, but I still love re-arranging words. How lucky, Hannah, that your AP class had a creative component, even if your teacher sounds like a frustrated writer himself. Either that, or he was trying to provoke you to prove him wrong. Then again, there are only about six stories, right? Endless ways of telling them, though.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I think my teacher might have been a philosophy major in college, and was prone to morose thoughts, or maybe he hadn’t had a good book recommendation in a while. It’d be nice to think he was trying to get a rise out of all of us and inspire twenty great new books, though!

  6. movingforeword says:

    I began reading recreationally in the summer following my freshman year of college. I learned that reading could actually be quite enjoyable (when there are no textbooks involved). I began writing after I had a really weird/awesome dream that inspired me to put it on paper. Although I wrote in secret, I found that the act was such a fantastic release—and that I wasn’t half bad at it. Three years later, that dream has developed into my novel “The Mirrors at Barnard Hall” that I am attempting to self-publish. 🙂 I currently have 2 other manuscripts that need only an editor’s touch to be complete. Those came more from ideas that I had wished would happen. I really enjoyed this post and will be reading regularly!

    • hannahkarena says:

      I love hearing other writer’s stories about how they became passionate about writing; thanks for sharing! Wow, three books on your plate all at one time–good luck with that :] Glad to know you’ll be stopping by often!

    • hannahkarena says:

      No, it’s not. I don’t actually have any books in print, currently (though I do have a contract for a pictorial history about Byberry State Hospital) and I’ve gone back and reread this manuscript a couple times; safe to say it’ll probably never be published. But the idea itself still haunts me…maybe rewriting the whole thing would make a much more presentable book!

  7. K. C. Mead says:

    Great blog! As for the questions you pose, I think our first-book writing experiences were naturally very different (as mine was an academic book) but that I certainly still felt the keen pangs of rage several times while writing it. When my book was accepted for publishing, a professor I actually quite adored took me aside and told me it would only look bad and unprofessional for an undergrad to say she’d published a book on her resume. Beyond this, while researching I was attempting to connect with a variety of scholars through different media and one of them — due to my forgeting/neglecting to email him in reply — wrote me this scathing and incredibly rude letter about how all people my age in literary studies were disrespectful and felt entitled to every little thing — I can’t express how painful and enraging these experiences were. But I kept writing and it is scheduled to be published next fall now!

    I write because I need to.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Thank you! I can’t believe a professor actually said that to you–they were obviously just jealous (are they not published themselves yet?) I can’t understand why such an accomplishment at such a young age could possibly “look bad.” I remember my senior year I started sending out query letters for a book I had written and a few agents actually responded positively and asked for partials to consider further. I remember my favorite professor literally dancing with me in the English department halls, she was so excited for me!

      Who’s publishing your book, about Howl, yes? I’ll have to keep an eye out.

      Good luck finishing up your book! I”m going through similar pains researching, writing, and contacting important people in the psychiatry field–for historical research purposes, which makes some people irritated by my novice understanding of some psychiatric practices–but we can’t let them upset us! Especially when it can be so easily cured with the delete button and some ice cream :]

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