Recently, we moved back into my childhood home. On one of our first weekends back, I was cleaning out what would soon be my son’s closet (which happened to be the closet that I had spent my own childhood stuffing chock full of stuffed animals, prom dresses and board games), and I pulled out a battered, purple-and-white composition book.
Between the wide-spaced lines inside the journal, in wobbly, rounded handwriting, I’d written and illustrated what was probably one of my first ever stories, a tale about two best friends who loved horses and rode their ponies around their neighborhood getting into scrapes and adventures.
Many stories followed that one, written mostly for myself–as a way to live out and explore my desires and fears.
And then in middle school, I found my first audience. I was writing a story set in medieval times about a girl who wants to go to knight school, but is forced by her parents to attend finishing school instead, where she bribes one of the knights-in-training to give her knighthood lessons (heavily inspired by one of my all time favorite authors, Tamora Pierce). After I wrote the first chapter, I couldn’t resist sharing: I handed it over to my little sister to get her opinion.
The next morning over breakfast, she wouldn’t stop talking about it. She was full of questions and excitement and anticipation for the next chapter. I’d never before understood the beauty of having an audience–of how the words can take shape in a whole new way in someone else’s imagination.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Each week, I’d hole up in my room and write a chapter. The whole time, she’d hound me with guesses about how things would turn out, and I’d scribble furiously away to try and meet her anticipation. Her questions were a powerful tool for a budding writer–sometimes she’d inadvertently reveal a plot hole, and I’d disappear back into my room to delete and tweak and rewrite an almost finished chapter.
Other times her guesses gave me valuable insight into how she hoped things would turn out, so that I could cater the plot to draw out the parts she was most anticipating, or skip over things she found boring or unpleasant.
Years later, she’s still the first one to read my books–the first one to give me feedback about what’s working or not working, to cheer me on when I’m not sure a story is worthy for other eyes.
It’s been over 15 years since I found my first audience. Jenna is grown up now, busy with med school and a partner and their two dogs. And I’ve been slowly expanding my audience–letting in trusted readers one at a time, workshopping my stories in writing groups and camps, and refining and rebuilding my style.
But I think I’m finally ready to take a bigger leap–to let my stories spread wings and fly out into the world.
The novel that I have in publication currently is one that I wrote initially for myself, during a hard time when I was forced to question all of my beliefs about destiny and fate and doing good in the world. For a long time I wasn’t sure I’d ever try to publish it. It is a small and lovely thing, full of almost-magic and good food and new love, and it felt almost safer to keep it to myself. To read it to my children, and my grandchildren, and let it serve as my very own lantern during dark times.
Fittingly, it was my first ever reader, who convinced me that sometimes it’s the things that are hardest to share–those that are nearest and dearest to our souls–that most deserve to go out into the world. And I feel a burgeoning excitement about letting this story take on its own life in the imaginations of its readers.
Next month we’ll begin development on the first chapters. For those of you who’ve been asking, I’ll be able to release snippets here and there, and will fill you in more on what it’s all about. This is all very new to me, and I’m still learning what I can and can’t reveal as we work through the publication process.
One thing I did discuss with my publisher was the idea of releasing recipes from some of the things that characters eat in the book, along with segments of the story that describe the food. Let me know in the comments if that sounds like something you’d be interested in!
(Top: an image of the author and her first reader)