Today is a huge day for me. It’s the two-year anniversary of the day my hands typed this sentence:
“Kel and I load the last two boxes into the U-Haul.”
It’s the first sentence ever written to the first book I ever wrote. Exactly two years ago today, I started writing SLAMMED.
Here are the thoughts that led to that opening sentence.
“I’m so bored. I wish these rehearsals weren’t so long. I wish I could find a book to read that had a character who was a slam poet. I love slam poets. That would be hot. Darn it. I wish I could find one. Hmmm. I’ll just write a story myself before I bash my head against the seat in front of me out of pure boredom.”
I did have one issue with this idea, though. I didn’t own a laptop.
So, that sentence was actually typed out in “notes” on my phone. Along with about 1,000 words to follow. When my son’s rehearsal ended that night, Layken and Kel had made it to Michigan and she had just met Will. So I stopped by my mother’s house and said, “Hey! I need to borrow your laptop. I’m writing a story.”
“Okay, but I need it for work tomorrow. Bring it back on your way to work in the morning.”
I grabbed her laptop and went home, then finished Chapter One. It was about 2am and my mind wouldn’t stop thinking about Will and Lake, even though I had to get up and go to work at 6am. I’m not even sure I slept that night. The next day at work, I was taking notes between seeing clients. My boss was out that week so I was super busy at work and would go straight home, borrow my mom’s laptop again and write.
One thing I didn’t mention was the laptop was really a “notebook”. One of these really small computers that are hard to type on? It wasn’t pretty, borrowing that thing every day and typing thousands of words on it, then having to return it every morning. My hand was hurting so bad I would have to ice it periodically. But I was having so much fun writing this “story” that I couldn’t stop, despite the fact that my hand was numb.
The first week ended and I hadn’t let anyone read any of it yet. I had four chapters finished and it ended right at the hallway scene where Lake sees Will. I decided to let my boss read it, so when she came back to work from vacation, I handed it to her and said, “I’m writing a book. Want to read some of it?”
She was so used to me starting new things, she didn’t give it much thought. I’m pretty sure that year alone I had decided I wanted to do about fifty different things with my life. I enrolled to get a Master’s in business, decided I wanted to open a pottery store, was pretty sure I wanted to get my embalming license and become a mortician, and no telling what else. I was always looking for that one thing that would make me happy, because I had decided years prior that I would never make a living doing what I really wanted to do…which was write.
So Stephanie read the first four chapters.
And Stephanie got mad.
“Where’s the rest??? What happens next? Where’s chapter five?” she said, wondering why in the heck I would give her this story and end it at such a heart-wrenching scene.
“I don’t have any more. That’s all I have.”
Needless to say, she pushed me to give her a chapter five. Then a chapter six. And so on and so forth. She was so encouraging that all I wanted to do was go home and write, because I had this person who was genuinely interested in this story I was writing and it felt good! Actually, it felt great! She wasn’t getting anything out of telling me she liked it. Stephanie and I were really close and I knew she honestly just wanted to know how the story would end, so that made me want to think of an ending and somehow finish the story until it got there.
Christmas was coming up and my mother had always been a huge supporter of any of my crazy ideas, so I decided I would try to finish the book by Christmas and give it to her. However, I couldn’t wait. I wanted her to read what I had written, so I took her a few chapters one Saturday around lunch and told her I wanted her to read this story I was writing. We had made plans to go to the casino that evening, so she said she would read it after she got finished with laundry. I remember sitting by my phone for hours, waiting on her to call me and tell me what she thought.
She never called.
The afternoon came and went and now it was evening and the phone rang. I answered it and said what everyone says when they answer the phone.
“Hey! You ready to go?”
My heart sank at her words. Here was my mother, who, btw, is BRUTALLY honest. I knew she more than likely read it, but the fact that she didn’t even mention it gutted me. I just wanted her to like it because to be honest, I was really broke and needed her to like it so it could be her Christmas present. I was thinking, “Great! She hates it so much, she’s not even going to mention it to me. NOW what am I supposed to get her for Christmas?”
I hung up the phone, all sad and trying to pretend like my pride wasn’t shot to hell. I got in my car and drove to her house and picked her up. She got in the passenger seat and shut her door, then I backed out of the driveway. It was awkward to say the least. She had the manuscript in her lap and I remember looking down at it, then looking up at her. She looked right at me and just started crying.
She held those first few chapters in her hands and said, “Colleen! It’s so good. It’s just…it’s so, so good.”
I will never be able to explain to anyone what that felt like. I know mother’s are supposed to tell you you’re brilliant and great and everything you do is awesome, but it was so different coming from her. That moment, out of everything that has followed is forever my most favorite memory. That was the moment I fell in love with writing. Knowing that something I created could make someone happy or sad or just make them feel something at all was like that one thing I had been missing in my life. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t money or a career I was searching for at all. It was a passion.
We drove to the casino that night and all we could do was talk about the characters. At that point, Will didn’t even have a last name. We were driving through a small town called Cooper, Tx and my mom said, “How about Cooper? Name him Will Cooper.”
And so I did.
I’m pretty sure this was around my birthday and I still wanted to try and finish the story by Christmas. My plan was to get it printed and hand them out to my sisters, grandmother and friends. When I say I was broke that year, I’m not exaggerating. My husband and I had three children and didn’t even make $45,000 a year combined. We lived in a single-wide mobile home and even though I had a Bachelor’s degree, I was only making about $9 an hour at the time. We were struggling, so Christmas presents had to be really creative sometimes.
On December 12th, I was over halfway finished with the story. I went online and googled, “Cheapest way to print a manuscript.”
I came across the Amazon KDP site and registered that day after reading all about it. I was stunned! I read that I could upload the manuscript and people would be able to download the book to their kindles. I also read that the book could be printed for free through Amazon’s createspace and people could order it. I thought it was too good to be true, but I called my mom and sisters and told them all about it. They were encouraging, telling me I should go ahead and do it when I finish it. What did I have to lose? It’s not like I was trying to make money off of it. I just wanted an easy way for people I knew to be able to read the story.
I remember finishing the book Christmas Day. I took the last chapter to my mom and she read it. I waited for her response and she said, “It was good.”
Uh-oh. That’s not the response you want from a very honest mother who cried over the first few chapters. I said, “You hated the ending.”
She shrugged and said, “No, I didn’t hate it. It was good. I just feel like it needs something more. I don’t know. You’re the writer, not me.”
So I took her tiny little laptop and went back home and stared at the manuscript. It finally clicked and I re-wrote the ending. I didn’t have Will’s slam at the end. The book had ended with Layken’s slam and the epilogue wasn’t even a part of the story. So I wrote the last slam from Will, which really solidified things for them…then I wrote the epilogue. I took the new ending to my mom and she read it, then when she finished she sat it in her lap and wiped her eyes. She looked at me and said, “It’s finished.”
Best. Moment. Ever.
I spent the next week formatting and editing it the best I could. I wasn’t prepared for anyone to read it that I didn’t know, and since I was broke I couldn’t afford an editor or a cover designer. I chose a free cover from Amazon’s Createspace cover-creator and on New Year’s Eve, I uploaded the book.
I can tell you right now, I never in a million years would have finished writing that book had I known what was going to happen. I would have been too terrified. If you’ve followed my story, you know the next few months were a whirlwind. People actually downloaded the book and were leaving reviews and some of these people were thinking this was actually a real book and that I was a real writer! Every time I would get an email or a new review, I would call my mom and say, “Oh my God! This person called me an author!” We would both laugh at that, wondering if they knew I wasn’t a real author and that I lived in a trailer house with a negative balance in the bank.
I remember one day calling my mother and saying, “Six people bought my book today! SIX! And I don’t even know them!”
It was huge. I was looking at possibly making enough money those first two months to pay my electric bill. It was crazy exciting and I enjoyed it so much, I started writing a sequel, Point of Retreat.
Another month passed and it became March. The month that would change things forever. Slammed was ranked somewhere in 15,000’s on Amazon I think, but that all changed when the book was recommended to blogger Maryse. She read it, loved it and reviewed it. That night, the book was downloaded by over 100 people.
I think it’s safe to say I didn’t sleep that entire night. I kept hitting refresh on my reports tab and was thinking there was something wrong with Amazon’s reporting. But every day the book’s sales would increase by about 50. By the end of the weekend, the book was ranked in the top 1,000 and was being downloaded about 200-250 times a day. I took screenshots every few hours, thinking once all of Maryse’s followers read it that no one else would read it, so I wanted to remember every second of it.
That didn’t happen. People kept buying it and the ranking continued to get better until eventually, the book hit the top 20 on Amazon, then made The New York Times.
Think about that for a second.
Here I was, still working full-time making $9 an hour. I would still cringe any time I read someone refer to me as an “author” because in my mind, I told this story that got out of hand. I wasn’t an author. I didn’t write literary fiction or anything remotely profound. I wrote a little story and didn’t even use big words or fancy description because honestly, I hated to READ big words and fancy description so when I wrote the book, I wrote what I liked to read. Simple, straight-forward stories. I was confused. My name was on the freaking NEW YORK TIMES! I didn’t even have an agent or a publisher, nor did I know anything about any of that. It was a self-published book with no backing from the big 6 or advertising or professional reviews. It was a story. A STORY. I still hesitated to even call it a book at that point because…books were written by authors.
And I wasn’t an author. I was a social worker.
I felt like a fraud. An imposter. I knew I was going to get a phone call from the NYT’s, explaining there had been a huge mistake and I wouldn’t be seeing my name on the list after that, but that never happened. Things just continued to get better. Both books hit the list and were now both in the top ten books on Amazon and were in their fifth week straight on the NYT’s. I got an agent, then started getting offers from publishers. Offers I didn’t even know could be offered! It was insane.
It stayed insane.
It still is insane.
So yes, it’s been two years since those crazy first few months of my writing life. Maybe I should be used to it by now. Maybe I should feel comfortable calling myself an author. Maybe someday I will, but for now I love the fact that this all still stuns me. I hope I never get used to it.
It feels like a lot longer than two years, doesn’t it? Heck, I can still say I published my first book last year, because it wasn’t even uploaded until January 2012. So to think since last year, I now have 5 novels and they’re all NYT’s bestsellers is absolutely insane. Not counting the novella. And Maybe Someday, which is finished but hasn’t released yet. And to top that off, both the SLAMMED and HOPELESS series have been optioned for film.
I can’t even begin to explain what these past two years have meant to me. Yes, it’s the busiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. Yes, I’ve had to make sacrifices. Huge sacrifices which include time spent with family and friends. I also don’t know the last time I had an honest to goodness day off work. Probably two years ago, the day before I started writing Slammed. But I work as much as I do because I love it and can’t imagine ever NOT writing books.
So, I’m sitting down today and as my schedule has worked itself out, I just began writing my eighth book. Two years to the day, eight first sentences later and all I can think of is how incredibly lucky I am. So, so lucky. So grateful. So freaking happy. And all day yesterday while we celebrated Thanksgiving, there was a little something extra I was thankful for that went beyond my family and friends.
I’m thankful that my words have an audience. I’m thankful for the readers who fuel this newfound passion of mine through their encouraging words. I’m thankful my mother and my boss and my sisters showed enough interest in the beginning to make me want to continue fulfilling that passion.
I’m thankful for the entire past two years and for that very first sentence I wrote in that very first book I didn’t intend to start. And now, I have eight first sentences to be thankful for and hopefully many, many more beyond these.
“Kel and I load the last two boxes into the U-Haul.”
2) Point of Retreat
“I’m confident this year will be our year.”
3) This Girl
“If I took every romantic poem, every book, every song, and every movie I’ve ever read, heard or seen and extracted the breathtaking moments, somehow bottling them up, they would pale in comparison to this moment.”
“I stand up and look down at the bed, holding my breath in fear of the sounds that are escalating from deep within my throat.”
5) Losing Hope
“My heart rate is signaling for me to just walk away.”
6) Finding Cinderella
“You got a tattoo?”
7) Maybe Someday
“I just punched a girl in the face.”
8) Ugly Love
“Can you get past him without waking him up?”