Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 3: Studies

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Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 3: Studies

As a young writer, I had a lot of doubts.  Perhaps foremost was the problem that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.  Like most teens, I spent a lot of time . . . trying to figure it out.

My father really wanted me to take over the family business. He had a meat company and a small grocery store that was fairly successful, and he was hoping that my brother and I would open satellite locations.

I had teachers who tried to interest me in their own fields—which included mathematics, science, law, and sociology.

My grandfather had worked in the mafia, and taught me a bit about how to live a life of crime.  (Seriously, he was a real piece of work.)

I even had one odd experience where I was visited at my school by recruiters for the federal government.  I was called to the principal’s office at the age of 15, where I was introduced to two gentleman from the CIA, one from the Secret Service, and one from an agency that did not want to be named, along with a couple of folks from the national and state departments of education.  I was rather baffled, but one of the CIA agents said, “Did you know that you can join the CIA when you’re only sixteen?  You wouldn’t be a field agent, of course, you’d work in a think-tank, where you would debrief agents, think about what you heard, and the notify us of any issues relating to national security.”  I really didn’t feel qualified for the job.  It all sounded crazy to me.  I was surprised that half a dozen people from Washington had flown across the country to see me, but apparently I have an unusual brain, and they thought that my “gift” could be of use.

I knew that I was more interested in the biological sciences, and by my mid-teens, I was leaning strongly toward studying medicine.

But then there was my English teacher.  She asked me to visit her after school when I was sixteen, and said, “You’re a writer, and you don’t even know it yet.  We need to get you prepared.”  At the time, I was a bit surprised and told her that I planned to become a doctor.  She warned me, “You don’t understand: you can’t just keep this buried.  Someday, it will just start coming out of you, and you won’t be able to stop it.  We have to start working on extra classes, on your writing skills, to prepare for that day.”

Well, I did a few extra creative writing assignments, but not a lot.  I did start writing more, but mainly in nonfiction.  In fact, when I was sixteen, I wrote two “books.”  My brother was studying wildlife biology in college, and I took an interest in that, did some research, and wrote a field guide to the mustelidae family of mammals—minks and weasels.  It was only a couple of hundred pages.  Then, feeling inspired by that, I wrote a little book on the history of the development of nuclear weaponry in the United States, which was of a similar length.

But fiction writing was a bit tough to crack.  I began reading books on writing, things like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but I felt that all of the books that I was reading weren’t really helping.  It was as if they were offering a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, but none of them really showed the whole picture.  I kept looking for books on story structure back in the early 1970s, but didn’t really find anything.

And my study method was spotty.  I was working a lot after school in my parents’ store and meat shop, often getting in forty hours a week by working nights and on the weekends, so that was a distraction.  Then there was the fact that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

In fact, I have to admit that I began to wonder if there was anything that I could do.  I began to have a lot of health problems.  As a young teen, I developed manic depression.  By the time I was thirteen I would have suicidal fits, followed a few days later by states of high energy and excitement.  I knew that I was sick, and my parents knew that I was in trouble, but at that time I know that my mother was troubled at the thought of having a son who was mentally ill.  My father figured that “it just runs in the family,” since both he and his father had struggled with the problem.

On top of that, in my early teens I also began to become chronically ill with severe allergies, so that I was constantly fighting congestion, hives, and rashes, along with other strange symptoms.  I got some allergy testing and found out that I was allergic to pretty much everything, and by the time that I was sixteen I knew that I couldn’t continue living in our home in Oregon.  I was going to have to move to a new environment.

So my studies of writing weren’t very focused.  Instead, I kept circling back on the topic.  I’d read a book, think about it.  Then read another.  On a good week, I might read two or three novels, but if work got in the way, I might not get one read at all.  I was reading every fantasy and science fiction novel that I could, but concentrating almost exclusively on new releases.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t study some things.  I’d read Lord of the Rings and loved it, so I re-read it several times.  I even went to the library and picked up books on literary criticism of Tolkien, and I read them all.  When I read Dune, I found that I needed to re-read and study it.  And when I saw the movie Star Wars, when I was 19, I watched it for fun twice, and then began re-watching it and studying the story, trying to figure out what attracted me to it.  I watched it more than 30 times with various friends and family members.

I didn’t just study novels.  I found myself studying movies, television, and so on.  By the age of 19, I realized that I still wanted to be a doctor, but decided that I wanted to be one who wrote on the side.

At the age of 19, I went to serve as a missionary for two years in the Chicago area, which let me rest from worrying about what to do with my life.  My manic depression had weakened and nearly gone away (which is fairly common in teens), and my allergy shots helped with the allergies a bit.

But when I returned to Oregon, the allergies came back stronger than ever, and I spent a lot of time being very sick.  Once again, I was torn.  My father was becoming very ill, and I wanted to help with the family business.  I wanted to study medicine, and I wanted to study writing.

So I bounced around a bit.  I took some odd jobs trying to make money for school—working as a meat cutter, a store clerk, and as a prison guard.  I eventually moved to Utah to escape my allergies and went to BYU, where I majored in microbiology with the intent of becoming a medical doctor, though I was still unsure of what my specialty would be.  As a pre-med student, though, I felt that I couldn’t really devote any time to writing, and I tried to put that on the shelf.

But then my high school English teacher’s prophecy came true.  I was working hard in school, when one day I got an idea for a poem, a rather long poem.  So I began composing the lines to it, and found that I could not stop.  As my teacher had said, it had to come out.  For about four days I worked on the poem all day, and when I went to sleep, I dreamt up new lines and stanzas.  For the next few weeks, I kept tinkering with it, and had a realization: I had to write.

I was at BYU, and went to the “English” building where the English classes were taught.  I was sitting in the hallway, wondering which writing class to try, when I heard a woman’s voice in a nearby room say, “If you’re looking for the 218R creative writing class, you’ve come to the right place.”

So I got up, went into the class, signed up with the teacher, Eloise Bell, and felt for the first time that I was really on the right track.  With my first short story in the class, I had some nice success.  I got an A on it and entered it into a little writing contest, where I won third place and a little money.  That inspired me. I loved the class so much, that by the end of the semester I decided to opt out of medicine.

I considered choosing English as my major, but decided that I wanted to become a writer/editor.  The idea was that I would learn to write and eventually I would get good enough to become published, but while I was doing that, I would make a living as an editor, hopefully working for a large publisher in New York.  In studying the English curriculum at the time, though, I didn’t feel that an English dergee would really help prepare me well for either career.

So I created my own curriculum through the University Studies program.  My curriculum required me to study writing, editing, and modern literature—much more than the average English major.  (The English Department loved the idea so much that they later adopted a stripped down version of my course as the English/Editing major, and an alternate version became the English/Writing major.  I created my own course in about 1983, and within ten years, I was told that over 140 universities and created similar courses.)

Finally, I decided, I was ready to get grimly serious about my writing.  With my continuing allergy problems, it seemed like the right path to take, and I dedicated myself to studying in a way that few writers do.

Eventually I would study my field in depth, win awards, become a bestseller, and begin thinking about stories and literary criticism in new ways.  But as a young twenty-something, I was all about throwing myself into fulfilling a lifelong dream.

So I took the plunge.


I have a new short story up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo titled "Ship of Fools." You might want to pick it up:

When a run in with highwaymen leaves them poor, Erstwhyle, a satyr, and his “fool” companions travel to Castle Crydon to entertain an evil prince. If they succeed, they’ll win The Dark Prince’s purse, but as the last of the satyrs, Erstwhyle has a skull that any prince would fancy—as a trophy on a wall.

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