Today is my blog’s sixth anniversary. Six years ago today, I abandoned my job and left New York with an idea book filled with notes about a place called EAS. Six years ago exactly, I finally did what I had always said I would do: I dedicated myself to writing a manuscript, finding an agent, and getting published; I decided, once and for all, to become a writer.
I was not yet twenty-three.
These days, I don’t feel like I have much in common with that younger Shelby. She was breathtakingly brave (possibly foolish) to take such a plunge. She was naive too—both about her personal skills and about how quickly the career of a middle grade author could develop. She had written novels, but she never pushed her writing so far that she reached the very limits of her talent.
In other words, she basically didn’t know what she was in for.
But looking back, after six years, over thirty-four drafts, and more than 555,000 words, with all the wisdom that experience has given me, I have to say this about younger Shelby: she had the guts to make her dreams to come true, and that is the only reason it actually happened.
One summer in middle school, visiting the public library and browsing their Teen section (this was way before YA was big), I had a thought that struck me like electricity buzzing through my veins: books had helped me. I read all the time, devouring new titles and rereading old favorites, but that day, surrounded by books, scanning all the familiar titles, I realized how many had shaped my thoughts without my knowing it (at the time at least).
Take the work of Madeleine L’Engle, for example. (I’d returned one of her books as I walked into the library that day.) Reading A Swiftly Tilting Planet helped me wrap my mind around huge concepts that scared me: nuclear war in particular and the destructive side of humanity in general. A Wrinkle in Time and The Wind in the Door taught me that love is the only weapon that can transform an enemy into an ally. A Ring of Endless Light showed me the way a writer can transmute personal pain into writing material, and it showed me the hard truth that sometimes even art can’t stop grief from overwhelming us.
I knew, without a doubt, that my mind was a safer, kinder, healthier place, because those stories had taken root inside me.
From that point on, I didn’t just want to be a writer. I wanted to be THAT kind of writer.
Nowadays, when readers tell me—in person, via email, or through a blog comment—that The Ever Afters series helped them, I always tell them how glad I am to hear that.
I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone why I’m so touched.
Maybe I should have. Every time I learn that I’ve written a story that has helped someone, I’m reminded how amazing it is that my childhood dream has come true, but until now, I always stopped short of explaining the precise nature of my dream.
Doubt haunts every writer, sooner or later, and those were the thoughts that held me back: Who am I to say that my stories might help people? (There’s nothing wrong with just being funny and entertaining.) What if someone looks for MORALS for all the stories? (There aren’t any—not in the same sense as Aesop’s stories.) What if the books start to read like I’m preaching like a self-help manual for middle schoolers? (I really hope not.) What if someone thinks I think that I have all the answers? (I don’t.)
Even when a dream comes true, it’s hard to be honest about it—at least at first. You’re still afraid that you’re going to mess it up.
Still, now that I’ve thought back this week, I’ve realized how much I’ve learned about writing since I started this blog:
- If you really want to write a book that helps people, you need to write a book that helps you. Not just one that helps your inner twelve-year-old from the past, but the twenty-something author moving words around in the present. Writing and editing the story, you must go through a journey yourself, so that your characters’ journey rings true.
- Use everything you have—every shred of feeling, every idea that clicks, every reveal and every character flaw. Don’t hold anything back. You will find more material when you need it.
- Writing will not be fun all the time. Writing will sometimes feel like work. Writing will sometimes even be painful, and that’s okay. You’re just digging deep into personal emotion, like that vein of grief running right down your middle after your great-grandmother died, so you can lend it to your character and transform it in a scene. Writing through the pain will heal you a little and help you seal the scar.
- You will not get extra brownie points for putting extra effort in—for revising draft after draft, for tinkering with a bit of dialogue until it sounds right, for threading precise character development through the story—but afterwards, you will no longer need that kind of credit. Writing a book will have changed you, and you will like your new self better than the old one.
- You will be more grateful for the chance to finish the story than you will be for all the bells and whistles of the glamorous author life.
My mother has pointed out that when I’m upset, I tend to go quiet. If you have noticed that I’ve been absent—from this website, from social media, from the public world in general—that is why.
I’m really sad to see this series end. For me, it’s not just the books and the characters; it’s not the deadlines that have given structure to my years since 2009. It’s the end of an era—where I changed and learned and outgrew everything I thought I knew about writing. Maybe it would be easier to say goodbye if I knew what happened next, but I don’t. My only hint is this: I feel like I have some more growing up to do—both inside the realm of book-making and outside it.
Six years ago, I believed that bravery was a giant leap, trusting that something will break your fall. (Please see the end of Chapter 19 in Of Giants and Ice for exactly what I mean.) Now I recognize other kinds of courage.
Sometimes, bravery is just rising up to meet an unknown future, taking one small step in the right direction.