The Beginning of Great Wordcraft

An Author’s Origin Story & First Guide to Novel Writing

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

This month, Shaunta is leading the Ninja Writers Crew through our 31 Day of Being a Ninja Writer challenge. You should totally check that out here:

Today’s challenge is about building your craft library. As a writer, one of the most important things you can do is start reading not only the novels in your genre and the other books you love with a critical eye, but you can start studying the craft of writing, where writers and editors break down the process of creating a novel.

I started building my craft library a long time ago, long before I ever knew that I would — or could — finish a novel.

I was in the seventh grade.

Starting a new school in a new city, where I didn’t know anybody. I was repeating the seventh grade after a truly horrible year of taking online classes, classes that I didn’t show up for. Even though I didn’t have the terminology then that I do now, I can say pretty confidently that depression had been kicking my twelve-year-old ass.

I was not happy to be repeating the grade, even if it was my own fault.

As a kid, I gravitated more toward the adults than I did people my own age. That’s still true today. So, when I wasn’t sitting alone in a corner reading, I started chatting with any adult around, including our campus security guard, Mrs. Marti. And it was she who introduced me to the first person to change my life, one of the school’s vice principals, Carol Weaver.

Many years later; The City of Santa Fe Springs’s Diversity Summit 2009. The few years before this, Carol (the colorful one at far R) had secured the opportunity for me to talk as a motivational speaker at the summit. This year, my senior year of high school, she blindsided me: I was the guest of honor, and received awards from the Cesar Chavez Foundation, Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, and the California State Assembly. This is one of the few pictures that I have with Carol that isn’t in storage.

I wish I could say I remembered more about our first meeting, but I don’t. But I do remember how full of energy Carol was (and still is!), always working out, walking, drinking water, always moving somewhere and running some great program. When I think about Carol, I think about living the good life — good food, good wine (not in the eighth grade, but later!), and doing good work in the community.

I could talk about her and the great things she’s done for hours, but I don’t trust my memory, and this is a different post.

Anyway, I became one of Weaver’s Pets pretty quickly. She took me under her wing, made me an office worker and a peer mediator and introduced me to a world outside of my family and my depression. And she, a former English and theatre teacher, introduced me to the world of writing, even letting me make one of the office computers mine.

I joined Poetic Constellations, a poetry site, in the summer before I started high school. This is a poem that I wrote for Carol. It truly is terrible.

It was obvious to her, pretty quickly, that I had a skill for writing, and she, more than anybody else at that point in my life, encouraged me to keep writing. Back then, it was poetry and the occasional short story. Every day, it seemed, I’d churn out a pile of new poems on printer paper, then hand them over to Carol to read.

They were such terrible poems. And she was very kind.

But even while I was focused on writing short forms, she knew that I had a novel in me. She kept telling me that, repeatedly.

CSUF Women’s Conference

I don’t remember now if it was during my seventh or eighth grade year, but Carol was ecstatic when she found out that Elizabeth George, one of her favorite authors, would be giving a speech at a women’s conference she would be attending at California State University in Fullerton, a few cities over.

Me and Laurie Halse Anderson, many years later. (Now I’m just showing off.)

I had never heard of Elizabeth George; it was around the time that my entire world had been captivated by this new author I’d discovered in the library by the name of Laurie Halse Anderson. But I gleaned from Carol that Elizabeth George wrote murder mysteries set in England, which sounded pretty dang amazing.

Carol seemed to catch herself. “Oh, crap, you can’t read those yet. You’re too young. You’re definitely too young. Promise me you won’t read those until high school.”

I promised. And I actually kept that promise.

But, anyway, the day of the conference came. And the next day, Carol showed up with a gift for me.

It was this gorgeous, deep yellow hardcover book, with a picture of a quill and the jaunty and strong words WRITE AWAY emblazoned on the cover.

“This is for you,” she said. And she flipped to the title page, where, in an elegant, script, were written the words.

To Zach:
Have faith and keep writing.
Good luck,
Elizabeth George.

My first signed book. I remember being completely overwhelmed. This was huge. This was monumental. This wasn’t a auto-pen signed picture from J.K. Rowling that came in the mail, but this was an author. Writing this, specifically for me. This was the closest encounter I’d ever had with an author (and would remain so, until I walked into Ellen Hopkins’s house for Thanksgiving dinner almost a decade later. But that’s another story).

Getting it signed, Carol told me, had been a total coincidence. She had been walking out of the hall after Elizabeth’s speech, and had been talking animatedly (to put it mildly) to everybody and nobody about how much she loved Elizabeth George, loved her books, loved her speech, the whole enchilada.

And then she heard a quiet “Thank you.” Carol turned, and it was Elizabeth George herself.

And from there, they struck up a conversation, and Carol started talking about me; her pet, her pupil, her project, her budding writer. And the conversation lasted all the way over to the signing line. And that was that. A little bit of serendipity.

I devoured the book.

Even though a lot of the information went completely over my head, I absolutely loved the book. The examples, the information, so much of it was earth-shattering. And having an author’s perspective on how she crafted her elaborate, difficult stories, step by step, was nothing short of amazing.

I wore that book ragged. Even if I didn’t really start writing a novel, wouldn’t seriously start writing a novel for another decade, at least, I drank in that information, absorbed it into my bloodstream. I reread the book every year or so. (Unfortunately, the original signed copy is in storage in California somewhere. I now own another copy that I use on a daily basis.)

If you’re a new novelist, I can’t recommend this book enough. Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY should be a part of your craft library. Click the photo below to buy it on Amazon.

Zach Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne.” He acts, sings poorly, and writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction.

He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno.

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