Five years ago this month, Empire’s Daughter was published, the first book of my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. (Not that I knew, at that point, it was the first of a trilogy. I’d written it as a stand-alone.) I was 56.
I’d wanted to be a writer all my life, and I’d written all my life. And, to be fair, I was a writer, just not of fiction. In my first career, I wrote scientific papers for peer-reviewed journals, and procedural manuals, and monographs and chapters in highly technical books. Then I moved away from research and into education, and I wrote curriculum for the entire province, and a textbook, and many presentations and more technical manuals. Oh, and grant applications, in both careers: I was very good at grant applications.
All the writing I did in my previous two careers was very structured; there were protocols to follow. In scientific writing, precision of language was required: the exact scientific or technical term had to be used and the explanations needed to be accurate, unembellished, and follow a logical, clear, order. In writing grant applications, all those restrictions still applied, but I also needed to know what the ‘buzz’ words were, the terms that met the priorities of the granting agencies. Those terms had to be included in a natural way, not forced into the wording of the application.
In my career in education, I had to write for different audiences. A middle grade textbook uses different language than a guide to assistive technology for parents. A curriculum written for high school teachers, following the template provided by the province, is different again. I learned to match my word choice and sentence structure and the layout of the project to the audience.
Very importantly, none of this was done alone. I might be – and often was – responsible for the actual writing, but the final product had always gone through peer review, editing, rewriting, more review….and from that I learned the value of other eyes and minds, and how to take feedback (leave your ego at the door) and how to throw out something I loved.
So by the time I’d written Empire’s Daughter, and decided it was worth sending out to the world, I’d already learned a lot of the lessons a writer of fiction needs. (I’d written two previous novels during this time, too. They’ll never be published: they were practice in the craft.) I’d learned about structure and tailoring language to an audience. I’d learned ways to describe concisely and accurately. I’d learned about embedding concepts seamlessly into narrative. And most importantly, I’d learned about listening to those within my field charged with improving the work, and how even a competent and confident writer needs an editor.
The editors I worked with at the small, now-defunct press that first accepted Empire’s Daughter for publication taught me more about writing fiction, but much of what I learned was an extension of what I already knew about writing. I have four books behind me now, and I continue to learn: I hope I always will. But I don’t regret the years I spent in my other careers, the years spent absorbing and practicing how to use words to convey a message precisely, concisely, and with impact. They helped make me the writer I am now. Something else did, too, but I’ll leave that for another day.