In 2011, I decided to change my life.
For two years prior, while again biding my time at my husband’s duty station, I had risen to the level of my incompetence in my civilian position. My career, if you can call it that, was random and largely dictated by where we moved and what if any opportunities existed for me. So again, I found myself preparing to resign, move, and start over at the bottom—bottom-level duties for bottom-level pay. Bottom-level enthusiasm.
I realized I was done pretending. Done writing SOPs and op-orders. Done halting my career, even one I didn’t like, every time the hubs received orders. Done waiting for my life to begin. I needed something of my own.
The only skill I truly possessed was storytelling. I had a little writing experience and a degree in theatre arts. And, I had a story to tell, one that included family secrets, the really juicy kind. So, I decided to write a book.
That decision began my path to professional.
Step 1: Take the Leap.
For me, this involved two actions: NOT looking for another job-job in my soon-to-be new town and making an agreement with my husband to give me a year to write. If at the end of that year, I didn’t have a manuscript, I would return to a salary-earning job.
Step 2: Tell someone.
I found that with every “I’m going to write a book” in response to the question of “What are you going to do at the next place?” I became more and more committed to writing the book. Proclaiming an intention, even rally lofty ones, will create accountability. No way was I going to become a lying loser.
Step 3: Study the craft.
I knew storytelling, but I became overwhelmed when faced with the task of writing a full-fledge novel. Common creative writing elements such as writing dialogue, narrative structure, and point of view were foreign to me. So, I did what anyone with Amazon Prime would do. I bought a book on how to write a book. I sought out free writing workshops and cheap seminars. I cleaned out my local library of creative writing textbooks. I learned just enough to be dangerous.
Step 4: Stop thinking. Start doing. Create.
After the move to South Carolina was complete and all the talking about writing a book and the studying about how to write a book, there was only one action left. I had to write the book. Without the book, my path to professional would go nowhere. So, I wrote. I approached writing as a job-job. Every morning after breakfast, I would dress then head off on my commute: up the stairs to my home office. I wrote a chapter, a day and a week at a time. After six months, I had 52,000 words and a very rough draft.
Step 5: Study the business.
Typing “The End” on the last page of the rough draft was far from the end. I knew that. I felt it in my bones. But, I had no idea what to do next.
Creating art is one challenge. Creating a successful business and career around that art is another.
I spent a couple of weeks researching both local and online publishing resources. With the limited financial resources I had, I attended two paid workshops about the publishing industry and purchased a copy of the latest Writers’ Market text, the Bible for writers looking to be published.
Step 6: Create more.
The workshops taught me that if I wanted publishers to take a chance on me, I had to have more than a manuscript. I needed an online presence. So, while revising and polishing my manuscript, I began a personal blog and actively increased traffic and followers for my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I had to give away a bit of my privacy, but I gained a following. With the blog, I was starting to create a business.
Step 7: Learn more.
One year after typing the first words, I submitted my manuscript to several small publishers. One picked it up. What I thought was the easy downhill portion of my path to professional turned into an overgrown trail. I struggled to know what to do next and how to do it. So, I studied industry vocabulary, editing lingo, and marketing strategies. I read every article I could find on the craft of writing, all forms of writing. I read novel after novel of other coming of age stories—anything I thought would move me closer to professional.
Step 8: Find a tribe
Two years into my new career and another move down, I decided I needed a tribe. I Googled “Writers groups in Columbia, South Carolina” and two major groups popped up in the search results. One crapped out, but the other became my first writing tribe. Every other week I joined ten other writers around a table. I sat, sometimes with great anxiety, as they critiqued my work. There, I found professional associations, industry resources, and my future boss, the first person who would pay me to write.
Step 9: Gain experience. Pay dues.
After the book was released. Very few authors pay the bills with books. Other types of writing pays but requires experience to be hired. One friendship from my tribe in South Carolina grew to a professional opportunity to work as a content creator for websites. I jumped at it. Was the subject matter thrilling to me? No. But, that didn’t matter. I needed real resume experience. After two years of writing for my friend and boss lady, I started sending out resumes and portfolios for other paid work. Four months later, I big fish bit my line.
Six years into starting my path to professional, I can now pay my kid’s tuition and a big chunk of our monthly bills. Am I rolling in it? No. But, I’m getting us closer to comfortable doing something on my own terms that I actually enjoy doing. And, somedays, I even do it in pajamas with yesterday’s mascara still smeared across my face.
Step 10: Make the mistake.
My mistake came in the form of making a major career path decision the week my son was born. While hopped up on postpartum hormones, I signed with an agent for a book that was already published. (Bonehead!) I thought it would help book sales to have someone else promoting it. Well, that decision turned out to be the wrong one. But, I don’t regret it. I learned more about that part of my industry—the role of literary agents, industry standards, and book promotion—than I ever would have learned without that big mistake.
Step 11: Create your own opportunity
Three years into my new career, my husband and me and baby makes three moved for the last time. This time we headed home, a place where after a fifteen-year absence, I was a virtual unknown. I needed to find another tribe, professional associations, and opportunities again and quickly. I looked around and found that Mobile, Alabama, did not have an annual literary festival or writers’ conference. So, I started one myself. First, I sold the idea to the local library system so the festival would be virtually cost-free. Then, I brought in the local writers’ guild for volunteers and participants. It was a lot of work, but through the festival, now in its third year, I have found my new tribe and have grown my professional circle.
Final Step: Keep doing steps 1-10.
Yep, whenever I hit a wall in my career and think, this is never going to work, two thoughts pound in my brain. Number one: This is working so get over yourself. Number two: Do it all again. You know how.
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