March 21, 2020
My usual process involves a lot of just jumping in.
Some explanatory background: I am a high school drop-out. We were a military family so we moved a lot and I was always the new kid. And I was an arrogant little shit, so even in 10th grade I was casually walking out of school whenever I felt like it. At the start of the year I’d get my books, put ’em in my locker and promptly forget the combination. I’d bullshit my way through tests – I’m good with tests. As a result I had stellar marks on standardized state tests, which complicated the lives of teachers who wanted to fail me. I hit 85th percentile on math skills which, if you knew me, you’d quickly realize is ludicrous. My math skills stop at long division. But it’s hard to flunk a kid who you should be able to teach. So. . .
As I was finishing 10th grade my Dad came back from Vietnam and we relocated from Iowa to the DC area. My first day of 11th grade I was new, as always. Went into the lunchroom to eat my Salisbury steak, and a teacher stopped me. Seems I went in the wrong door. I said, “OK, I’ll remember that next time.” To which the teacher said, “No, sir, young man, you’ll go back out that door and come in the correct door.” So I walked out of the school never to return.
It’s called ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Of course we didn’t have the term then, so ALS -Arrogant Little Shit is close enough. (The character Armo, in the Monster, Villain, Hero trilogy is a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-parody: big, reckless, not very smart white boy incapable of following orders – except from women.)
I did later attend San Francisco State University for, oh, let’s call it a semester. I was heavily focused on chasing women and getting high, and pretty quickly quit college, too.
So I’ve never taken a writing course or read a book on writing. When I started I was 34, had been a fugitive from justice for a decade (a second decade was still to come), and was cleaning homes and offices on Cape Cod. It was my wife, Katherine Applegate, who suggested we stop being fucking idiots and get careers. I asked her, “What career?” She said we should write. So, I said, “Okay.”
It literally never occurred to me that I couldn’t do the work. So, with very little actual education and no experience, at age 34, cleaning toilets, broke as hell and liable to be arrested at any moment, I thought, “Sure, why not?” And I jumped in.
We banged out a Harlequin romance novel, got paid $5,000 and moved to Portland, Maine. There we began ghostwriting for Sweet Valley Twins. And I got a side gig as the regular restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. But still with no real idea of how one was supposed to write a column, or anything, really. But Katherine and I were frantically turning stuff out. The SVT ghosting, spin-off books for Disney (Mermaid, Aladdin), ghosting parts of another series called Girl Talk. I did some ad copy as well. Reviewed some TV shows for another local paper.
Then we, along with a few others, more or less invented the ‘group of mixed-gender kids hanging out’ form of YA, with Ocean City, Boyfriends/Girlfriends and Summer. Not that we had any idea we were doing something different. Neither of us had ever read a YA book.
Ignorance has worked well for us.
Anyway, there was never a point where I learned the proper way to do things. It was all ad hoc. I literally cannot diagram a sentence. I have no idea what ‘participle’ means. I don’t know what defines a given genre. I don’t know why a paragraph is a paragraph. And I’ve never even looked at a reading level guideline. I’d been writing for kids for years before I heard there was such a thing as a reading level.
All of which is my long-winded way of saying that whatever aspiring writers learn from this experiment, it will probably not align with what you’ve learned in school. It works for me, but your mileage may vary.
When I talk about this at schools I point out that every now and then someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge and actually survives. This does not mean it’s a good idea to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Just because I jumped off and then jumped in, does not mean this is the path for any rational human being. Our eldest daughter says that my life is ‘non-generalizable.’ IOW, the lessons I’ve learned probably don’t apply to anyone else.
The thing is, if you’re going to write, you’re going to do it your way.