All my life, I’ve turned to books for advice and answers to my how-to questions. During my first pregnancy, I read everything I could get my hands on about what to expect while expecting. I carefully studied every chapter in books about taking care of newborns and toddlers. When I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning my own horse, I bought books on backyard horse-keeping, training, and equine first-aid. I turned to books when I planted my first garden, bought my first flock of chickens, and brought home a lamb and baby goat in the back of my car. (That’s a story for another day.)
Years later, when I decided to get serious about writing, it was only natural for me to turn to books again. My favorites are “Bird-by-Bird” by Anne Lamott and “On Writing” by Stephen King. While trying to figure out the mysterious process of crafting a novel, I read about plot, character, style, structure, word painting, the importance of character naming, and how to find your muse. And I wrote.
After transcribing the first messy draft of The Plum Tree from several legal pads on to my computer, I tinkered with the beginning, lengthened the middle, finalized character names, and incessantly changed my mind about descriptive words. I tried to use what I’d learned in books to turn misplaced plot points and confusing flashbacks into a manuscript; hopefully a manuscript someone would want to read someday. But there was something else I needed to know. Was my writing any good or was I was wasting my time? Unfortunately, the answer couldn’t be found in books.
Having graduated from a tiny high school (400 students in K-12), I knew I had a lot to learn if I really wanted to revise and try to sell a novel. After all, I'd never taken a creative writing course, there were no local writers’ groups, and I didn’t go to college. I didn’t know any authors, editors, or creative writing teachers. The only place I had to turn was the Internet.
I will be forever thankful that my search led me to William Kowalski, award-winning author of Eddie’s Bastard/HarperCollins. With my heart in my throat, I emailed him, asking if he would read the first ten pages of my manuscript. I’d never shown my writing to anyone, and now I was going to send it off to be critiqued by a complete stranger! Yikes! When he emailed the next morning, saying I write better than most college graduates he knows, I started shaking. I couldn’t believe that someone, let alone an award-winning author, thought my writing was good!
Over the next four years, William Kowalski became my editor, teacher, mentor, and, I'm honored to say, my friend. He taught me about style, structure, voice, and more importantly, how to be a storyteller. He was surprised by how fast my abilities improved, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. It was an exhilarating time for me, discovering the skills I needed to turn my dreadful first draft into a real, live novel. I read his emails and devoured his comments like a sugar-charged kid ripping open presents on Christmas morning. Of course there were times when his edits and comments felt over-whelming, but he had warned me to read through them a few times, let them digest, then tackle them one by one. It was a necessary lesson on patience; priceless when it came time to work with the editor from my publishing house.
My mentor’s faith in me and my work bolstered me during difficult times and pushed me to believe in myself. I taped his letters of encouragement above my desk and read them often. He taught me more about writing in those four years then I could have learned from a hundred books. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me (mentioned in his article about receiving the same advice from his mentor) was: Always Return To the Right Foot. This advice makes sense if you’ve ever been in the military. When the command, “At ease!” is given to a soldier, he is free to do anything: slouch, pivot, yawn, etc. But his right foot must never leave the ground.
The plot of a novel is that right foot. As novelists, we’re free to wander off in any direction, to taste the homemade bread and sweet jam or explore the castle ruins, as long as, sooner or later, we return to that right foot: the part of the narrative that makes the reader keep turning the page, that answers that all-important question: And then what happened?
What happened for me was this: I worked like a dog to transform The Plum Tree and get it in tip-top shape. Then I sent out large piles of query letters, found an agent, and sold my first novel.
I owe everything to William Kowalski. Somehow, he turned a small-town girl with no creative writing experience into a soon-to-be published novelist. Words can’t describe my gratitude. With his gentle guidance, unending patience, and immeasurable knowledge, he taught me how to return to the right foot, and in the end, changed my life.