Writing What You Know In Fantasy

IMG_0149When I was in high school, I wrote a book. Everyone in my high school read it. This was back before personal computers so I hand wrote the whole thing and then typed it up on a typewriter. I realize this ages me. It was a very long time ago.

I was not a popular kid. I was, in fact, a weirdo. In the dictionary, under the term “weirdo”, I am fairly certain there is still a picture of me.  However, the kids at my school loved my book. The AP English teacher told me I was cursed to be strange for the rest of my existence. That was just how writers were.  He then quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald to me.

“Writer’s aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person”

I loved that. From the time I was seven, I thought of myself as not a person but a writer. I did not want to be a girl. I definitely did not want to be a boy. I thought I might like to be an angel if I could get one of those swords made of light, but that didn’t pan out. So I decided I would be a writer instead of a person. And this was way before I was introduced to old F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Anyhow, I wrote my first book when I was fifteen. It was about 75,000 words.  I thought I would be published before my junior year, and I would be able to help take care of my family. So my dad had a colleague at his office proofread and type up my manuscript. It was a story that involved suicide and a teenage outsider trying desperately to be who his parents wanted him to be.

I knew nothing about publishing. I did not know how to write a query letter, but my dad found a publisher for the genre  through his beat up copy of the Writer’s Market  (I don’t remember if YA was a thing back then – I was in whatever category Judy Blume was in). We sent the whole manuscript in to exactly one publisher with a little cover letter. I mentioned that I was fifteen so I knew how to write about adolescence. Well, not so much. Turns out the book sucked, and I didn’t know anything. About anything.

However, someone at the publishing company took time to write a long constructive rejection letter.  It was the most perplexing thing to me. It said the same things my dad always said. You have to write about what you know, and you have to have some perspective.  The material does not have to be original, even Shakespeare stole from history and mythology, but good fiction must have a strong perspective and that makes the work original. The kind editorial assistant told me to keep up with my craft. I would improve over time as I gathered more life experience.

At the time, I was devastated by this because I wanted to write fantasy, not about the mundane crap that I thought I knew. And there were no dragons or elves living anywhere nearby.  I was totally obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien growing up, and I was sure that one day I would be the American version of him. I even started to study archaic languages in college just like him. It turns out that was not my thing. I now look back on one sentence from Fellowship of the Ring that strikes me as almost prophetic. It read something like  “Frodo found it curious that adventure found him at the age of 50, just as it had for Bilbo.”

Well, I suppose I am like Frodo and Bilbo in that I find adventure has befallen me rather later in life than I planned.  I studied Tolkien (I actually went to Oxford to walk the same halls, went up to the lake country to see the same things he saw). In time I came to realize that even though Lord of the Rings was fantastical, Tolkien did write what he knew. And he was, even more than I am now, quite mature when he wrote his masterwork.  He did not have to know actual orcs. He fought World War I. He did not have to know someone like Sauron.  He saw first hand the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Berlin must have looked an awful lot like Mordor to him. He saw his peaceful homeland bombed and fractured by war. He was, himself, a hobbit.

In the end, like Tolkien,  I wrote about what I knew and fantasy all at once. It took a long time. But that long and thoughtful rejection letter sent to me at fifteen may have hurt at the time, but it encouraged me for decades. My life has been a long and painful journey since I left the Eden of my childhood, and I thank God for it everyday. My experience is very different than Tolkien’s but it gave me a story to tell. I did meet dragons along the way that sent towers crashing to the ground before my eyes. In my life, I have encountered all manner of monstrous and glorious beings, some mortal and all too human, and some demonic and all too eternal.

Now if just one of those agents I queried would have mercy on me. As an update, this past week I got one more rejection (personally addressed form email) and two partial requests (three chapters each) so I am inching closer to at least sharing a bookshelf with Papa Tolkien.

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