My Writing: Beginnings
Before we get any further... if you’re looking for “dirt,” check the Garden Center of a Home Depot. This autobiographical essay’s out of stock.
I’ve called Indiana home most of my life. For brief periods, I’ve lived elsewhere. Those places were alright--if you enjoy tent camping and extended stay hotel rooms decorated with former guests’ toe rings. I wish I was kidding about that last part.
The first thing I remember writing was a story about a fox and a farmer for a children’s “bookmaking” class (not the gambling kind) taught through Purdue University’s Super Saturday program. I was about five or six years old. Around the same pre-Y2K time, I remember coming up with a list of three hundred book ideas in an ancient word processor. Alas, the document was lost when my family’s old Apple desktop crashed. The ideas were more or less titles, but they were my titles, dang it! There was definitely one about an African Grey parrot. I can’t recall any others.
I told my parents, “I’m going to write all these books.” I proceeded to rattle off my favorite titles.
They asked, “Where are you going to sell your books?”
“Church--and I’m going to sell them for $20 each.”
Their reply was good-natured. “They’d better be pretty good if you’re charging $20!”
“Yeah, they will.” Oh, the confidence of youth!
I planned to use my family’s printer to create the short titles sans illustrations. A couple of stapled pages seemed like a reasonable literary product to young book-loving me. Besides, who needs pictures when you can get some more words crammed in there instead? Shockingly, that particular business idea didn’t pan out. I’ll place the blame for that firmly on the wiped computer’s silicon shoulders. It’s probably for the best. Even with zero customers, that printer couldn’t keep up with demand.
Growing up, I watched a lot of PBS, so, naturally, the next logical step in my author journey was to write/illustrate a book about a candy-filled paradise and submit it to the Reading Rainbow Story Contest. I may not have won, but I got my first rejection letter from LeVar Burton--the next best thing. And, yes, I know he didn’t write that letter. Please let childhood me have his moment!
Time passed. I can’t put my finger on why, but, sometime around third or fourth grade, writing lost its luster. From mid-elementary school through my freshman year of high school, I wrote almost exclusively poetry as part of daily homework assignments. One poem involving a singing goose was a sign of humor yet to come, but, generally, my early verse centered around nature and my Christian faith.
Late in high school, I tried my hand at writing short stories. I’m so horrified by several of these “works” (found in the dictionary under “work, pieces of”), I keep them in a folder covered with hazardous waste stickers. That’s an exaggeration, but I have no interest in reading or sharing them whatsoever… not now, not ever--never. A few months before graduating high school, I sent a hard-boiled spy story set in the Soviet Union to a popular young adult magazine. It didn’t make the cut. My writing took a hiatus following graduation.
While attending Purdue University, I had my First Promising Idea. It was early in 2013--spring semester my sophomore year. There’d been a resurgence in the “alternate history” genre. Hollywood, in particular, was still flying high-ish off of the modest success of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, summer 2012’s undead sleeper hit. One day, I mentioned to a friend that, instead of an “alternate history,” someone should write an “alternative to history” (a.k.a., historical fibbing--but not the intentionally revisionist or reckless kinds). It started as a joke, but that changed soon enough.
It was late. I was stressed out and running dangerously low on sleep. Nevertheless, I was full of creative energy, so I dimmed my laptop screen to its lowest setting and sat in my dark room in Cary Quad, clicking wildly at the keys while doing my best to not wake up my roommate. Less than an hour later, I was rubbing my bleary eyes, scanning several hundred words of a humor piece that retold the tale of Pres. George Washington’s run-in with a cherry tree. The story even sounded pretty good the following day! Back then, it felt like I’d struck the motherlode--a plentiful artistic vein that was just the start of a record-shattering gold rush! Looking back with the dual benefits of sleep and hindsight, I’d liken that moment to finding a flake of gold in some soup and whispering, “Where’d you come from, little buddy?” Anyway, I continued that blog--more off than on--for several years. Thanks to an overly-generous departmental color copier policy, I even created a short-run print newsletter highlighting some of my best blog posts, discreetly placing copies around my residence hall, various academic buildings, and the Purdue student union. It didn’t take off.
Something did change with those first few blog posts. Most of the people I mustered up the courage to share them with were polite, but a handful almost did spit takes at certain points--real ones! Those friends were enjoying what I’d written as much as I had, and that felt amazing. I wrote my second blog post in public, typing out the story in a friend’s room late at night while he watched and laughed along. To borrow a line from Spaceballs, my writing pace in those creative spurts was just shy of “ludicrous speed.” In the past, I’d struggled to write dramatic, sweeping tales of tragedy and triumph, but, when I was writing humor, the nagging sense of phoniness I’d felt slipped away. Imagine Sisyphus finding out the boulder he had to roll up a hill for all eternity was now only one-third as big.
Other than the odd blog post and my occasional opening/closing of cobweb-filled Word documents I hadn’t touched since high school, my writing petered out during my senior year at Purdue. The one exception was a poem about the systematic removal of trays from campus dining courts. It was a long piece of writing for me at the time. I was so proud of it, I submitted it to the literary edition of a campus newspaper. It was not accepted. (The reason I’ve mentioned the rejections will become clear later on.)
Fast-forward to the week before I graduated from Purdue in May 2015. I finally had a long span of freetime to consider my future, so I took a stack of sticky notes I’d poached from career fairs and mapped out all of the ways I could take advantage of my evenings and weekends when I started my career. (Let naive, almost-graduated me have his moment too.) A handful of old, neglected writing projects were included on the sticky notes, but they weren’t high on the list of priorities. It’s funny how life can change on a dime….
Cue the dime! It was June 29, 2015. I was riding along in the front passenger seat of a dark blue Hyundai Sonata. My cousin was at the wheel of our rented conveyance. We’d been gone for a little more than a week on a camping/hiking trip through the American West. As we made our way through east-central North Dakota, I happened to look up from an article I was reading on my phone and saw a billboard sail by. I didn’t get a great look at it, but I remember seeing a cross and a lighthouse. I figured it must’ve been advertising a Christian ministry. And, thus, my Second Promising Idea was born. As a kid, I always thought it’d be cool to live in a lighthouse (check out the original Pete’s Dragon). Seeing the lighthouse on the billboard got me thinking about that childhood dream again for the first time in at least a decade. There in the sedan, I jotted down a few writing ideas on that theme. Four months later, after several revision passes, I was holding a novella-length middle grade book in my hands. I sent it to a few agents. They didn’t respond.
By the time I finished that first novella, I had no shortage of Additional Promising Ideas jostling around in my brain. I followed it up with a second unrelated novella that took about three-to-four months to write and edit. That book snuck onto the Kindle publishing platform for a few months. I’m still not sure how that happened… but I took it down soon enough. It wasn’t ready.
Between January and May of 2016, I wrote the first ten thousand words of my third book. Between May and July of 2016, I tacked on a bit more than fifty thousand words to the project. After another couple of months spent revising, I was ready to do something with the book. I queried several agents who were uninterested, so I decided it was time to take the independent-publishing plunge for real. The Kindle version of Pritchard Daviess - A Blissful Existence became available on December 29, 2016--exactly a year and a half following my Billboard Encounter. The paperback version went live the following day.
Unfortunately, that’s where things ground to a halt. I had a lot of creative plates flipping around in midair. I’d finished NaNoWriMo with a 40k+ fantasy project I didn’t know quite what to do with. I’d sent off a spec script continuation of the BBC’s 1990s hit Keeping Up Appearances to the show’s octogenarian creator’s agent. (I never heard back.) I’d even written a two-act play with the help of my sister! All in all, I was exhausted from pushing so hard for more than a year, so I let my foot off the gas… got out of the car… left it on the shoulder of a dusty road in the middle of a forest somewhere… and forgot which way I’d tossed my keys.
Let’s skip ahead to December 2018. Two years had passed since I’d self-published Pritchard. I decided to make a few edits to the manuscript and released the book’s second edition just before Christmas. In the process, I took a hard look at my creative habits--specifically, the lack thereof. I’m not going to be too hard on myself, because it won’t do me much good at this point, and, looking back on those two years, there were undeniably positive moments. During that time, I found a local bookstore that was willing to carry Pritchard. Some of my work was included in a charity poetry anthology. I even built up a small following with a new blog featuring random rants and bits of humor. But, more often that not, I’d left a wake of unfinished projects several nautical miles long, and that didn’t sit well with me.
So I set a goal. In 2019, I was determined to publish three new books. The first project was an older idea I’d had about a Civil War soldier sending letters home to his pets. I started mostly from scratch and finished the rough draft in January. Dearest Fluffy - Off To War was released through multiple platforms on March 1, 2019. Between February and early March, I wrote two travel memoir first drafts that, combined with material from a trip in June of 2019, became National Treasures (a newsletter exclusive). Ultimately, it took intentionality, several progress thermometers drawn on a dry erase board, word count tracking spreadsheets, and blog hiatuses to ease me out of that rut.
Late in 2019, I beat the cobwebs out of my first play, One Final Affair, and heavily revised it. I’d originally drafted the script in early 2016, but I dragged my feet forever revising it into “proper” play format. I’d promised my sister I’d have it completed by a certain date. I was only about seventeen months late, but who’s counting? In November, I started drafting a Christmas project and promptly dropped it, veering into another—Festive Figments, my first collection of short fiction. I packed in all the seasonal nostalgia I could spare.
Now, for the year you’ve all been waiting for… 2020. [Scream.] [Slap.] Sorry about that. In January, people kept saying, “Wait! So, it’s like the Roaring like Twenties again, like… right?” If we’re being honest, none of us really thought much about the meaning of “roaring” before 2020. It turns out, it’s a large, noisy engine of sadness, sickness, and disappointment that blows exhaust in your face and eyes, sunup to sundown.
Early in 2020—pre-lockdown, I finished drafting a play and a novelette (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel). At first, I described the play—published in August 2020 as Pioneer Pillow Talk—as a story that was all dialogue and no narrative (description, stage direction, etc.). And, then, I realized that’s pretty much just a play. So, I wrote it that way and pitched it to an audio drama publisher. Rejected.
Then, the lockdown descended like a pestilence. After a week or so spent floundering between creative projects, I acted. I committed to writing at least two pieces of short fiction a day (minus Sundays) that I released on a series of blogs, free of charge. That selflessness came with a price. I was ultimately banned from two groups on a social media network that shall remain nameless. (I can almost promise it’s not the one you’re thinking of.) Apparently, my prolific-ness bothered some people. Anyway, I stopped when I’d posted one hundred and fifty stories, all but a handful of which had been written between mid-March and early June 2020. I bundled the best of them into a collection called Jumbled (released October 2020).
Most of my summer was spent in the Editing Dungeon, as I un-affectionately call it. It wasn’t that bad, under the circumstances. The pandemic has/had—it’s ongoing as I write this—a way of limiting recreational activities. After two months, I managed to crawl out from under a stack of five rough drafts, putting the finishing touches on four of the titles. I left one down there—the novelette. It still reaches out from time to time to swap memes, but I’m not quite ready to march back down there and deal with it, man to manuscript.
Oh, and I wrapped up a secret non-fiction project that will be released in early 2021. I shopped it to a publisher—rejected. In only five days that time! I’m pretty sure that’s a record, because the five days even included a weekend. But I’m still typing. As I’m revising this essay midway through October 2020, I just finished the initial drafts of my first mystery novella and my third play. Rough drafts keep stacking up! Every time I sit and stare at a Word document and think, “This isn’t working—it’s unfinishable,” I remind myself, “Seventeen rough drafts (and counting). Seventeen! You finished those other stories, and you can finish this one too. Put in the work.”
My point in sharing all of this is to encourage you to keep writing if that’s your thing. More broadly-speaking, whatever it is that you do as a productive hobby or passion, keep at it! Set goals! Be intentional about sticking to them! Finish what you start! And mind your manners! And don’t pass people on the right on the highway!
Anyway... the rejections, criticism, and distinct feeling I was being ignored all stung, but I didn’t let any of that silence me. When self-doubt creeps up in my creative life, I think back to the first big laughs my stories got in college and reassure myself that there’s an audience out there for what I’m working on. If you write and haven’t amassed much of a following yet, don’t give up. Keep writing. Keep editing. Keep publishing/posting. They’ll find you. Then, when you’ve located your “tribe,” would you mind sending a few of them my way?
Thanks for reading!
Adam D. Rice
Last Updated: 10/2020