How National Novel Writing Month jump-started my first novel, “Queen Bee”
Seven years ago at a party, someone asked: “If you could do anything with your life, regardless of money, what would it be?” The answer for me was the same as when I was a teenager: I’d write fiction. And it still sounded just as stupid but, twenty-plus years later, I had to ask myself: If that was really my dream, why wasn’t I pursuing it?
The answer was obvious, of course. I lacked experience, knowledge, connections and ideas. Plus, I had a full-time job. When would I ever find time to write?
But I kept thinking about it, wrestling with it and, as the months followed, and none of my excuses changed what I wanted: The chance to tell my own stories, to know my own characters, visit my own worlds and maybe someday share that with others if I was lucky.
So I repurchased Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d bought it once before in my late twenties but in a fit of anxiety over horrible miserable failure, I literally threw it into the garbage before opening it.
However, this time I managed to read it all the way through and six months later, after following his advice to try to read and write every day, I was 10,000 words into my first novel. Fyi, your average novel starts at about 120,000 words, so that means I was just far enough along to feel that incredible rush of optimism that maybe this time I could write a whole book.
Then I learned of National Novel Writing Month, which is a month-long challenge that takes places every November to write 50,000 words (which counts as a novella). I took it as my cue and started writing again and then kept going when the challenge was complete. By April, six months later, the first draft of my first novel was complete. It was a different take on the very popular vampire stories of that time and, though I still love it, it remains in a drawer to this day, maybe because I’m embarrassed of how unpolished it is or maybe because there’s something missing from it. I think it’s a bit of both.
Still, I kept writing, mostly on weeknights and weekends, as I had before. Two hours here, three hours there, etc. I’d set a timer, light a candle and just do my best and whatever was on the page by the time the alarm sounded was what I got for the day. Sometimes that was 700 words, sometimes 1,000 and sometimes if I was on a good streak it was 3,000 words. It came and went and still does. Over the next two years, I wrote a short thriller novella, some short stories, memoir pieces, essays and blog posts plus I started and then stopped a handful of stories that fizzled after 8,000 words or so. It was frustrating and most of the time I felt like I was getting nowhere (except for the handful of times I’d actually finish a piece; then I felt elated).
I think the thing that aggravated me the most was something was wrong with my writing and it wasn’t just my inexperience. I liked my ideas (or I wouldn’t have bothered) but they just felt a little flat. Looking back now I can see I was pretending to be the kind of writer I admired not the writer I really am. I was writing the stories I thought I should write. You know, adult-stuff, serious stuff, credible stuff.
So how would I find the stories that were truly me?
Here’s the truth: the stories I’ve loved all my life were always either about animals and/or the natural world. They were the stories of my childhood: The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, The Hobbit and, of course, the entire Disney and Pixar canon. Inside, I’m basically still a kid.
Separate from that, or perhaps related to it, I love to learn about nature. I watch nature programs out the bazoo, I’m fascinated by insects and plants and flowers (though I’m the worst gardener ever) and I love to cook and muck about with essential oils and holistic remedies. Amid these random pursuits, I started coming across all these articles about honeybees and how they were struggling and dying out. I was fascinated because bees are social creatures, just like humans, and they live in tightly-organized communities where everyone has a job to do and you better follow the rules or else. Reminded me very much of our lives.
Mother’s Day 2014 rolled around and I accompanied my mom to mass down at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Detroit, right near Lafayette Park, where I lived at the time.
All I know is I was standing in the pew during service and a little girl was in front of me with light brown hair braided down her back that ended in a lavender bow. She had to have been about 11. A vision hit me. In my mind’s eye, I saw a bee come fluttering in with an injured wing and collapse on the wooden pew behind her. She turned around, saw it and, instead of screaming, gently picked it up, took it outside and placed it on a red rose. I saw it all from the bee’s perspective. How terrified it had been, being so tiny and expecting to be crushed by this giant human, and how relieved and thankful it was to be taken to safety instead.
The vision was so clear, so real, I got physically warm as if I had a fever. As soon as the service was over, I dashed outside to look around and to the right of the church was a red rose bush just as I had imagined. Shortly afterward, I started writing, Queen Bee, a story that takes place in the world of honeybees, which revolves around a young female worker bee who goes on a quest to save her dying hive. I’d love to tell you that writing Queen Bee was easy, but it wasn’t. The story flowed more naturally probably because it was more authentic and originated from a place of wonder and love yet I still worked my tail off to get the first draft done and then all the editing and polishing plus the production work with my publisher to bring it into completed form. Three years in total from start to finish and a lot of long nights where I truly questioned whether it would ever be as good as I wanted it to be. I kept going because I believed in my heart I had something. I still do.
Sometimes on rough days I would go to the nearby Barnes and Noble on my lunch hour and visit the section where my book would be displayed if and when it was ever published. I’d find the Ws and the slot where my book would go and dream about the day when I would see it there, maybe even facing out like, they displayed all the hot new titles.
Last February, Queen Bee was finally published (with the scene with the girl with the lavender bow). I’ve spent the summer meeting readers at events, like the recent Pollinator’s Palooza at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. I am so fortunate to live in such a wonderful, supportive community, like Grosse Pointe, with so many resources and people who love reading.
A few months ago, the local Barnes and Noble contacted me to see if I’d like to come in to host an event. Of course I agreed and my friend Brian Peterson-Roest, a local beekeeper and founder of the nonprofit Bees in the D will join me to educate on the challenges bees face. The other day, I asked the event manager if she needed me to bring in some extra books for the event.
“We’ve got all we need,” she said. “I’ve already got Queen Bee on display, facing out on the shelf in its section.”
For me, that’s a happy ending.