When I was 12 years old, I checked a book out of the library that changed my life. Circa 1980, “choose your own adventure” stories were all the rage. You’d start with Chapter One, which set the stage, but instead of proceeding in a linear fashion to Chapter Two and so on, you’d get a choice at the end of Chapter One: do you do A or B? If A, turn to page whatever, and if you choose B, turn to another page.
I loved science fiction and fantasy, and so I eagerly dove into reading this particular book with a cover adorned with rocket ships and planets. But at the end of Chapter One, I frowned: the writing was simplistic, the plot idiotic. By the time my “adventure” wound its way through one stupid cliche after another, I was done. I chucked the book across room.
“I could write better than this!” I shouted.
And then I stopped.
It was as if my own choose your own adventure book unfolded before me – just like that.
What if I tried to write a novel?
Not a story, mind you. A novel.
I was in the seventh grade, and I decided to write a novel.
My latest reading binge before the crappy book that changed my life was Anne McCaffrey’s dragon stories, and my imagination had taken me soaring over the world aboard a purple and bronze dragon. I tried writing the book long hand with a thick green barrel pen stolen from my sister’s school stash, but my hand hurt, and my handwriting was lousy. I knew that writers used typewriters – hadn’t I seen enough episodes of Murder, She Wrote to know that? So I dragged out the old card table and my mother’s manual Royal typewriter from its cold corner of the upstairs coat closet. I set up the card table in the middle of the playroom, almost in the exact spot where I had launched the book-missile, and I found some paper, and I began hunting and pecking my way through a typo-ridden first draft.
I completed my first novel, Child of Wind and Sea, when I was 12 years old.
It was entered into a contest along with my classmates’ stories from English class. We bound them into books using cardboard and buckram provided by Sister Helen Murphy and I used a piece of wrapping paper from my mother’s stash to decorate the cover. Sister Helen submitted all the books to a local competition and the entire class rode a bus to a local high school where we trooped through to admire everyone’s submissions displayed like real books at a bookstore. They were placed on tables throughout the high school cafeteria. The room smelled like old sauerkraut but there were books, our books, and people were admiring our works.
I blinked. I think it was the first time I thought about the fact that other people would actually read my stories. They were picking up our books and turning them over in their hands, reading parts of them.
I took my book off the table and walked to the line of kids waiting to meet the event speaker.
Children’s book author Ellen Conford was the guest speaker at the event, and I don’t remember a word of what she said, except that Sister Helen pushed me forward to meet her. Kids were buying her books and handing them to her to sign, except that I hadn’t read any of her books and I wasn’t about to fork over my hard-earned candy money for a book when the library had plenty of them for free. So when I stepped up to the table, with Sister Helen pushing me from behind, I thrust out Child of Wind and Sea.
Ms. Conform smiled uncomfortably. “Yes, it’s a lovely book.”
“Would you sign it?”
She seemed flummoxed by my request. “Um, it’s customary for authors to sign their own books.”
“Oh….” I remember pausing. “I don’t have money to buy your book.”
Relieved, she uncapped her pen. “That’s all right then. I’ll sign.”
And so here it is, a copy of my hand-typed, hand-bound first novel, written in seventh grade and signed by Ellen Conford. Note the bit of buckram spine showing on the upper left corner on the picture with her signature. Yes, we really did hand craft our books in seventh grade. And I drew my purple dragon with crayon. Classy, eh?
Two years later I was in 9th grade. My new English teacher was Pat Gross. She was also my gifted and talented mentor. She was always pushing us forward, except unlike Sister Helen who literally pushed us from behind to move forward, Pat pushed us to move beyond our perceived boundaries.
By this time, I was writing bad science fiction. Pat told the six of us in her gifted and talented group, “I want you to enter this short story contest.”
I groaned. Short stories? I had never written a short story in my life. I had no idea how to write a short story. I protested. She insisted. I whined. She grew firm.
“Just write anything!” she barked in exasperation, and if you knew Pat, you would know just how far I had pushed her patience to get her to bark like that.
So once again, I sat down at the old Royal typewriter – this time I had set up a permanent writing corner in the playroom using an old kitchen table discarded from my grandmother’s house – and rolled paper into the platen and began to type. I wrote about a widowed space pilot who blames himself for his wife’s death and who just wants to be left alone, except a kid stows away on his ship with a cat. And he’s left dealing with this kid, a cat, and his loneliness. Should he stay alone or should he help this orphaned kid in a futuristic world that treats kids like commodities?
I submitted the story in January. I remember just shoving the first draft into an envelope and slipping it into the mailbox cubby for Mrs. Gross, thinking, “Well, she won’t fail me now.”
Two months later I was sitting in Earth Science class when the loudspeaker crackled. “Will Jeanne Rudmann (that was my maiden name) please report to the Guidance Office?”
“Oooh….” the kids all mocked at once, delighted that goody-two shoes was getting in trouble. I frowned them into silence, slipped out into the quiet halls, and walked to Mr. Nagle’s office. He didn’t look mad. He looked absolutely delighted.
It turns out that my first draft wasn’t so bad after all. I had won the Brockport Science Fiction and Fantasy Competition. My story had placed first over 72 entries, and myself and a boy named Christopher in my class had come in first and second, respectively. The judges were astonished, because it was a national competition, not a children’s competition, and the first AND second place winners were both from Floral Park Memorial High School.
That award solidified my place in the world as a writer. I spent a week that summer, escorted by my older sister as a chaperone, at the Brockport writer’s conference, studying with Nebula Award Winners Nancy Kress and Stephen Donaldson.
I won’t tell you the rest of my story, not yet, but by age 14, I knew I was a writer. Not that I wanted to be a writer, but that I was a writer. There is a difference. In my lifetime, I have wanted to be many things – but there is one thing I know that I am, without a doubt, down to my DNA. A writer. A teller of tales. A wordsmith, an artist who paints with words.
That was 40 years ago, and yes, if you did the math right, I am now 54 years old. I have been writing professionally for 40 years. I began writing pre-internet.
To learn about writing, I went to the source of knowledge: the library. I rode my bicycle to the public library and read through both Writer’s Digest (still published) and The Writer magazine (sadly gone). I learned about a magical book called the Writer’s Market which listed every book publisher, magazine, and place to submit stories, novels, articles, and essays, and I began combing through the listings in Writer’s Digest to find places to submit my work. By age 16, I had published two magazine articles and was paid a whopping $25 for each plus a box of magazines; by age 19, I had published essays and two short stories. And at age 19, I left my last crappy minimum wage job, working the cash register at Macy’s Roosevelt Field and selling expensive designer jeans to privileged kids from Long Island’s snooty monied enclaves, to working as an advertising copywriter and script writer for the Yellow Pages. My new colleagues were amazed at my typing prowess more than my writing; one deskmate said my typing sounded like machine-gun fire. Being a fast typist had its place in the work world.
For over 40 years, I have immersed myself in a river, a sea of words; I have written everything from short stories (Runaway Boys, the prize winning one) to novels (The Majek Family mysteries, my well-received paranormal mystery series). I founded a content marketing agency, Seven Oaks Consulting, in 2007, which leverages written materials such as blogs, articles, papers, and case studies to help technology companies tell their stories. And I write a gardening and recipe blog, Home Garden Joy, and a virtual magazine, Virtuali, all about remote work and management.
When a longtime friend and colleague, Stephen Colwell, reached out to introduce me to April Davis of NAIWE, and asked if I would step into the marketing expert role for the organization, I was delighted. Having embraced marketing as a profession and always held parallel careers as a marketing expert and a writer, I was overjoyed to be asked to join the panel and share marketing insights with “my people”, my tribe, the writers of the world.
And so here I am, your new branding and marketing expert on the NAIWE Board of Experts, and I can’t wait to get started.
During the pandemic, when work was slow, I took the opportunity to take a few courses through my alumni group at New York University. One such course was in personal branding. With nothing to lose, I applied what I had learned in the personal branding class to my digital presence. The results were incredible. I learned the power of personal branding and marketing, and even though I had almost as much experience as a marketing director as I have as a writer, watching the power of an authentic brand image – my authentic brand image – unfold and attract the right business to my doorstep was astonishing.
This led me to pursue a certificate in personal branding from the University of Virginia, and to create a plan to share what I have learned about personal branding with the writers of this world. My mission this year, as I serve on NAIWE’s panel, is to teach writers the art and science of personal branding: to learn how to market and promote themselves and their work from a true and authentic place so that they attract the right readers and clients.
Throughout the upcoming year, my NAIWE blog will be devoted to articles on personal branding for writers. I am looking forward to sharing my experience with you and to learning from you what you need to know about marketing to be successful.
Please feel free to drop me a note or leave a comment here and let me know what you would like to learn about marketing and personal branding.
And I commit to you that I will share everything and anything I have learned from 40 years of writing and 30 years of marketing experience to help YOU be successful.
…and the four-footed crew at Seven Oaks Farm and Seven Oaks Consulting, Prospect, Virginia