In the sixth grade I entered a poem called “Friendship” into a school contest, and it was selected to be published in a book of outstanding poetry from outstanding young poets. Oh my God, I thought. I’m going to be famous. And better news—my parents could buy a brand new, first edition, specially embossed copy of the anthology for only $59.99!
What the 27,000 sixth graders who were published in that anthology soon learned, however, is that the book contained 26,999 other poems, also written by children whose parents didn’t mind spending $59.99 (plus tax and shipping) to let them have dreams despite having little to no talent for writing poetry.
Clearly, poetry was not my medium. I accepted that hard truth when “Friendship” didn’t skyrocket me to instant fame. Instead, I decided, I was going to be a fiction writer.
I’ve loved to read since as far back as I can remember. My parents have home videos of my sister and me as three-year-olds—I’m holding a nursery rhyme book upside down, reciting its pages from memory to trick the camera into believing I can read, and my sister is chasing our old cat Simba, repeatedly attempting to smack him with a slotted spoon.
You’re welcome, Joanna.
As I grew up, I surrounded myself with children’s fiction, then young adult fiction, and then school-required fiction, some of which changed my life (Anthem, The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun), and some of which made me want to stab my eyes out with dull pencils (A Tale of Two Cities). To this day, I wrap myself around books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and pretty much anything by Jonathan Safran Foer because, even as an adult, I’m still fascinated by worlds that don’t exist—or worlds that do exist, under lights that turn them into magic.
I was convinced that my calling was to create these worlds and the characters that lived in them—their lives and dreams and desires. Despite having never actually produced a work of fiction of any real substance or note, I spent much of my adolescence reading Harry Potter over and over again and telling myself that one day I’d have a great new idea, and I would be a great new fiction writer.
And then I got to college (a college I’d specifically chosen for it’s creative writing program) and enrolled in Advanced Fiction Workshop. During which the only well-written fiction I was able to create was actually just nonfiction from my life, except I changed the names and some of the details to make the stories seem a little less real. Mostly unsuccessfully.
I always sort of knew nonfiction was my genre, but it took me a while to accept it. Not because I didn’t love it or didn’t believe it had tremendously valid worth, but because the world of nonfiction just seemed less magical than the world of fiction (I really need to stop re-reading all the Harry Potter books every year). And although authors like David Sedaris and Jenny Lawson give me constant hope that nonfiction, if not magical, can at least be neurotic enough to feel a bit magical, when the chance comes around for me to work on a fiction project, I jump at it so hard that I crack a few ribs and sprain my ankle in the process.
Which is exactly what happened when Gretchen came to me asking for guidance while becoming Gretchen Powell, Author. Because, you know the saying “those who can’t do, teach?” Well…those who can’t write fiction, edit fiction.
(And those who can’t edit fiction also teach gym.)
Gretchen and I have a wonderful love story and, as a reader of her blog, I’d heard the murmurs that she was working on a dystopian young adult novel (UNGH MY FAVORITE). She knew a little bit about my writing when she reached out to me—enough to respect my skills as a writer and an editor, but not enough to realize how obsessive-compulsive and insane I am, and to the extent that I SERIOUSLY LOVE YOUNG ADULT DYSTOPIAN NOVELS. She had no idea that sending me a few chapters of her not-quite-finished first novel would develop into an intense whirlwind of whole-book edits and rewrites and cuts and added scenes and crying and hating her book and then loving her book and then hating it again and then wanting to punch me in the face every time I told her to stop using passive voice.
Gretchen has that magic fiction ability that I lack—the ability to create a new world that flashes and sparks, and to create characters for the world that make it, in its unreality, feel alarmingly real and urgent. When she came to me with her draft, my entire body lit up with its possibilities. I will never be able to create something like this; but she was giving me the opportunity to take her world, and her characters, and beat the shit out of them until they rose from their phoenix-like ashes as stronger, better, brighter, and magical…er.
Which was a pretty intense process.
Ouch. As I’m sure Gretchen (and any other writer) can tell you, opening up an email attachment from your editor to find a sea of red—the words you worked so painstakingly to create are slashed and shortened and questioned—is pants-crappingly terrifying. Which is payment for your editor taking the blame for any unintentional comma splices that appear in the final published book. (Yes; there is such a thing as an intentional comma splice. Because in fiction THERE ARE NO RULES. Just kidding. Sort of.) Editing is a painful process, and I did not give Gretchen the benefit of Novocain before I began drilling into her book’s sensitive gums. I think on more than one occasion, she was almost certain I hated her book, and that I also hated her. Which of course was never the case.
I’ve had a passion for editing for an embarrassing amount of time; I was that person in ninth grade English who, when peer-reviewing a football player’s essay on To Kill a Mockingbird, would cover the paper with proofreading marks and questions in the margins like “Yes, but what caused the inherent societal implications that resulted in Boo Radley’s reputation?”
I was not popular in high school.
But, as I explained to Gretchen after I’d sent her hundreds of pages of scathing, uncensored edits, the unbridled questions and suggestions and corrections were because I loved her book. I loved her story. After the first 10 pages, I was too invested in its characters and their journeys to hold back. I was too invested in the story to not want it to be the best possible version of itself.
And although Gretchen may have actively wanted to kill me most of the time, I’m looking at the book in my hands today, and every ounce of blood and tears that went into it is worth the nearly 300 pages of magic it produced. I am proud to be Gretchen’s editor and, now that the first book is published and we’re both still alive, even prouder to be her friend.
Terra has been an emotional, creative, and fulfilling journey for me so far. Gretchen has created something wonderful, and it has been an honor to be part of it. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to work on a story that still, even after dozens of reads, makes my heart race. My life right now is filled with so many uncertainties and anxieties; living in Terra’s world (in her pages, her thoughts, and her semicolons) has been a glorious act of escapism. I would say I’m sad for it to have ended (as it has been such a powerful deployment coping mechanism), but the good news is that this book is the first in a trilogy, so the best is yet to come.
Terra is now available as a paperback, for your Kindle, for your Nook, and in more media to come. You can learn more about the book (if you want to, you know, actually know what it is before you buy it, because even though I am extremely trustworthy and pretty, you don’t want to take my word that you’ll like it) on Gretchen’s author site. For those of you who think that’s too much clicking and not enough pretty pictures:
Congratulations, Gretchen! ONTO BOOK TWO.
P.S. The cover art and all the pretty shiny pictures were designed by Cassie, who is most certainly a rock star.