The Long and Winding Road
My Writing Journey – C. S. Lakin
People sometimes joke with me about my “twenty-year overnight success.” Not that I’m a success by the world’s standard—and I may never be, but that’s not what my writing journey is about. Yet it certainly did feel like getting published happened overnight—when I look back over the last two or so years and stare at three books sitting on desk—three published books in the last seven months. That’s crazy, isn’t it?
At a writers’ conference last year, I sat with a group of published authors. They all remarked how they put proposals together—short summaries of a book they’d like to write, and then their agent sends those proposals out hoping to snag a contract to write that novel or series. What astonished me was that none of these writers actually write the proposed book until (read: unless) they get a contract. Why did that astonish me? Because they will sit and come up with proposal after proposal, sometimes year after year but not write a book, any book, until they are asked to do so.
It made me do some serious thinking. For all of a minute or two. What makes a writer? For some it is a job, a career, and maybe for many of those established writers, it makes no sense for them to write unless they are getting paid for it. I just couldn’t relate.
I’d been writing all my life—poetry, short stories, screenplays, plays, helping my mother develop series for TV—something she “specialized” in. I’ve read quotes by famous authors who talk about the need, passion, drive to write, saying they can’t not write. That’s me. As much as I bucked following my mother and brother in their gold-lined footsteps (both were highly successful TV writer/producers), I couldn’t resist the call to tell a story. For fun, back about twenty+ years ago, I sat down and wrote my first novel—a literary foray that delved into college students’ angst and set on the northern CA coast, where I lived. It took me about a year to write, since I had two children under five, a bed and breakfast to run, and a pygmy goat farm. But when finished, I submitted it to a top agent in Los Angeles, and he grabbed it. I was thrilled. I had written my first novel, got the first agent I queried, and now I was on my way to be a NY Times best-selling author, right?
Although I do have a few (and I mean a very few) friends who actually wrote a novel and got it published within a year, I learned that is far from the norm. That is an anomaly, as rare as a black hole in our galaxy (well, maybe they’re not all that rare, but I’m assuming they are). I went on to crank out two more novels—these were psychological mysteries, contemporary, unusual. Again, I picked up agents who loved my work, but I was forewarned. I was told my writing was so original and unique, it would be a hard sell. That’s proved true, as I spent the last twenty years trying to get published and papering the proverbial bedroom walls with rejection letters stating what great writing and wonderful story but my novel just didn’t fit in anywhere. I’m still getting those rejection letters on the six unsold novels I am hoping any minute will sell.
I could just write what sells. By now I surely know how to do that. There are basic principles to each genre that will practically guarantee a book will sell should you choose to align your writing style and ideas to the market. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, writers are pretty much encouraged to do just that—study the market, write what sells. It can be done. It is being done by many.
But I gave up writing for about ten years after my third novel didn’t sell. It was just too hard to break in, too much competition, too frustrating and disappointing. And I just couldn’t write anything that wasn’t exciting to me.
Then one day, filled with despair over my lack of creative outlet and my need to write eating away at me like an acid or cancer, I prayed to God. I prayed for God to renew my fire to write. I prayed to be inspired with ideas and drive. I prayed for God to tell me what to write, how I could encourage and inspire others with my novels. I wasn’t prepared for the answer.
To make a very long story not so long, God always seems to point me to books for answers I seek. Often a book will “magically” appear on a café table or will be handed to me by a friend who says, “I don’t know why I’m giving you this book, but I think you should read it.” Through one book that led to another and another, I ended up with Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in my hand. I devoured this little volume, but my heart snagged on the chapter about fairy tales. By the time I finished that chapter I knew exactly what I was supposed to write. Okay, fairy tales are a far cry from contemporary relational dramas that have a random dead body strewn in for good measure here and there. But as soon as I thought about fairy tales, I grew excited. I was a big fantasy reader and had grown up with traditional fairy tales. I knew how powerful and archetypal they were. But aside from one contemporary author who wrote fairly crass, poorly plotted, and uninteresting takeoffs on fairy tales (and yes, you would know who I am talking about; he is a huge best-selling author), no one else was writing in this “genre.” And no one at all was writing Christian fairy tales—or ones infused with a Christian worldview. I thought it would be great to take those old fairy tales and twist them into new, long, complex stories. And so I set to work. I knew this idea would take the publishing world by storm.
I was wrong. I took The Wolf of Tebron to a writers’ conference and met with all the agents and editors there, knowing they would beg me to send my manuscript to them. They didn’t. In fact, they kept telling me no one in the Christian publishing market would look at them because no one published fantasy. Except a random one or two authors or books here and there. And those had been so lame the sales scared these editors away from trying again.
I was shocked. I knew the statistics. That millions of readers of fantasy were “out there.” That nearly every young Christian, when asked what they loved to read, loved fantasy. There was a huge market, ripe and ready to buy my books. The editors agreed, but they said they just couldn’t “take the leap.” But I did. It is a leap of faith to be obedient to what God puts in your heart to do. God did answer that prayer—put a fire in my heart to write again. I proceeded to write the first three fairy tales in my Gates of Heaven series. I kept pitching these books, my agent kept sending out queries, and I saw how many writers were starting to also write fantasy for the Christian market. It was if we all had gotten the memo and were doing what we were told, although there were no “signs” that anyone would buy what we wrote.
God knows, of course, what the future holds. And I believe he knew doors would start opening for fantasy and called for some volunteers to jump right in. I’ve been so pleased to see this market opening up over the past few years. I was blessed to connect with a publisher with the same vision as mine, that saw fantasy as a mission field ripe and ready for planting and harvesting. AMG contracted my series and at this point we are aiming at seven books. I’m currently beginning the fifth tale in the series.
But, to my surprise, I had some other books to write. At first I thought I was a little mad to also work on more contemporary novels. In fact, I was (and still am) often criticized, even by agents and publishers as being “naïve, immature, amateur, and clueless”—to name a few labels. Why? Because I don’t stick to one genre. I write YA sci-fi, fantasy (adult), mysteries, contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, relational dramas. It’s not like I mean to. But I get an idea and have to chase after it. In between fantasy books two and three I wrote Someone to Blame, a mystery based on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It won the 2009 First Novel Contest by Zondervan and was published last October.
Since that fateful prayer back in 2005, I have written eight more novels. Of those, four have sold and four I’m currently trying to sell. I have three more contracted I need to write in the next eighteen months. I just completed an epic family saga, a modern-day rendition of the biblical story of Jacob and Joseph, with a huge theme of faith and knowing God is leading us through a wilderness to the Promised Land. I mention this novel for, as I was writing it, God was making it clear that he knows where he is leading me, all the while I have no clue. His intent is to lead me to a very specific place, and this is the book’s theme—right into his arms. That is something that is taking me years of understanding as I wander through this strange landscape of writing novels and getting published.
Just as I was puzzled by God calling me to write fairy tales, I’ve also been puzzled as to why I am writing these heavy contemporary dramas (which I love to write). Why doesn’t God make me just focus on one genre so I can appear to be a professional, mature writer instead of a lunatic? I don’t know. All I know is that I write the books burning in my heart to write. As soon as I come close to finishing one book, the next one floats to the surface of my heart and says, “write me, write me!” How can I refuse? I have to believe he has a plan for these books. I may not ever see all my books get published. I sure hope I do. I want more than anything for my writing to reach deep into hearts and lead people to the God who knows and loves them with all his heart. But one thing I am learning on this journey is that God’s idea of significance has nothing to do with sales figures or best-seller lists. It is all about obedience and humility. It’s all about God doing a work in me (in all of us) to make us into the kind of person we need to become in order to dwell with him forever. As we follow our heart’s path, wherever it leads us—whether we are writers, doctors, bus drivers, daycare workers—God’s plan is to draw us close to him. Sometimes that means we just plow ahead and not be concerned with the outcome. It’s hard to be a writer and not care about sales or contracts. We write so others will benefit. But God’s aim is to get us to trust him and surrender to him. A much harder goal to achieve than writing a 400-page novel.
So as I continue on, writing what’s in my heart, I’m excited to see what doors open—and I’m learning to appreciate the closed doors too. For that just means God has something else—something better in mind for me.
For more info on C.S. Lakin and her books, visit her site at: http://www.cslakin.com/
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