By Michelle Bennington (Author)
[Charade Media's very own Michelle Bennington discusses her journey from aspiring to published author and all the ups and downs it's entailed. Let us introduce you to an up-and-coming author we're sure you're going to grow to love. ~ Kent Holloway, Managing Editor.]
Edgar Allan Poe inspired me to be a writer when I was thirteen. An English teacher had tasked the class to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the poems “El Dorado,” “The Raven,” and “Annabelle Lee,” and my decision was set. I wanted to be a writer, too. I wanted to affect readers, give them an escape, draw them into worlds filled with people I created. I began writing in secret. The dream was so outlandish. In those pre-internet days becoming an author seemed out of reach for a rural Kentucky kid from a blue-collar family.
But through the years, there would be little hints, little drops of encouragement like rain on parched lips, that would nudge me forward. When I was eighteen, I unintentionally published for the first time in my local newspaper. Didn’t want to. My grandfather had died. To process my grief I wrote a poem and shared it with my family. My grandmother liked it so much she had it published in the local newspaper. I was outraged. Angry. Embarrassed. How dare she expose me in that way?
I later won an award for that poem and was called to speak in front of the Lion’s Club.
I’m a firm believer that God makes a way when the way is meant for us. So, the publication and award were my sign to press ahead. So, I did.
Unfortunately, when God makes a way, He doesn’t always provide a roadmap. I wasn’t sure how to begin. So, I figured I should study English in college. In the profound words of the famous detective Adrian Monk, it was a “blessing, and a curse.” I learned a lot about writing and literature, but not so much about creating a life of financial stability. The Starving Artist caricature is way more romantic in your twenties than it is in your forties.
From there, I looked for every opportunity I could find to write and to publish. I figured doing it was the best way to learn, grow, and get experience. I joined the campus newspaper, wrote for a local magazine, submitted poetry and short stories to journals and magazines. I racked up a pile of rejections that could build a stairway to the top of Mount Everest. Each rejection tore me down and spurred me on. I joined every writing workshop I could find and began exploring how to write novels.
The struggle was real. Fighting myself was the biggest battle of all. In spite of the encouragement, the small publications, the few awards, the good grades, I could not believe in myself as a writer. I could not believe my words were worthy of publication. I could not believe I would ever reach my dream, ever be successful—whatever “successful” means since my definition evolves and changes.
No matter what I did, the dream of being a “successful” published writer seemed so far out of reach, impossible. It seemed I was spinning my wheels and going nowhere. It seemed impractical as I drowned in student loan debt. And the demons chanted “you can’t do that,” “you’re not good enough,” until I crawled away with zero self-confidence, zero self-esteem. For a lot of years, I gave up writing completely as a childish fancy.
Age does something to you—other than throwing out your back while you sleep. When I hit my 40s I realized I wasn’t getting any younger. I’ve always known that, of course, but it sure hits differently in your 40s when you figure out that if you live to be 80 half your life is done. Over. And then you sit on the porch, watching the sunset and wonder: What have I done with the first half of my life? Where have my dreams gone? And when you realize you’re falling short of everything you’d ever wanted for yourself, you come to the conclusion that you’d better make the second half count. Now, that means something different to each person. For me, it meant finally, once and for all, becoming a published author of novels.
I’d delayed too long and I couldn’t delay any longer. I was reminded of a story my friend told me about his dad. His dad had dreamed of being a writer and worked on the one same book for decades. No one had ever seen it or read it. He’d never tried to get it published. Maybe he was too afraid. Maybe he was too paralyzed with perfectionism, which is just a mask for fear. I didn’t want that to be me. I didn’t want to look back and say “What if?”
Then I read a Mary Oliver poem called, “The Summer Day,” and the last line echoed in my brain: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It was time to suck it up, buttercup, and get moving. I didn’t have time to wrestle with demons any longer.
I worked. Wrote. Read craft books. Attended workshops. Revised. Entered contests. I pushed hard and white-knuckled my way through my first novel, finishing it around 2010. Then I wrote another one in 2012. I’m not sure either of those books will ever see the light of day, but they were an invaluable source of education. I learned an enormous amount about myself as a human and a writer. I discovered which processes worked best for me. I learned about the publishing industry and techniques for getting my foot in the door.
I wrote two more books to practice writing to genre. And they seemed more ready than the previous two, so I began querying agents. By 2020, I landed an agent, then six months later a publishing contract for two series springing from each book for three books in each series!
Then I wrote another book that I knew would not fit neatly into any genre. So, I knew most traditional publishers would reject it. Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I began learning about self-publishing.
It was through my brief self-publishing stint that Birdie Harper and Dumpster Dying were born. As a cozy mystery with a Southern Gothic twist, I knew my quirky book wouldn’t fit neatly enough with traditional publishers’ marketing visions. After all, most cozies feature bakeries, cafes, knitting groups, and pets–-things that make a reader feel, well, cozy—in spite of the murders and mayhem weaving through the story. A hoarder suffering with a mental disorder, talking to her dead husband, and dealing with human trafficking isn’t exactly the sweetness and light that pervades most cozies. Those things are more in line with the Southern Gothic aspects, obviously. The cozy aspects of Dumpster Dying are found in the relationships, the quirky characters, the loyalty and compassion, and, of course, the lack of gore / violence, sex, and foul language.
Then something unexpected happened. I received some good feedback from the book in spite of its many flaws and rough patches. This is the big downside of self-publishing. It’s really hard to self-publish books on par with traditional quality.
Yet, readers liked Birdie. They really responded to her and related to her. This surprised me. I mean, I loved Birdie, but I didn’t realize others would, too. So I wanted to give her a fighting chance. I decided to try to find a traditional publisher for her to call home. Enter Charade Media.
Talk about perfect timing. Charade was looking for outside of the box books and I believed Dumpster Dying was as outside of the cozy box one book could manage.
I took a chance and sent an awkward letter to Kent Holloway saying something along the lines of: “I know it’s not usual for traditional publishers to pick up self-published titles. However, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try.”
He wrote back and agreed that it never hurt to try. He read the book, liked it, and got the green light from his partners. Between Kent and Charade editor Britin Haller, I believe the book is polished to shine.
I’m still new to the industry and learning something new every day. I’m learning this publishing thing is a mixed bag. It’s great, but it’s hard work, it’s challenging, it’s gritty, and it’s nothing like the stuff of dreams—at least that’s true for most published writers. It’s definitely nothing like the movies. I still struggle with confidence. I still struggle with the craft. But I’m growing. I’m still not successful by my personal definition, but I have to believe each step draws me closer. It took me a long time to realize that writing is life. And though it’s cliche the truth is that life is not a destination, it’s a journey.
The best part is this is just the beginning.
This is for the aspiring writer or the writer who is thinking of giving up. You got into this for a reason. Remember your why and hold on to it.
Now I ask you: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
You don’t have time to wrestle demons. You have work to do.
Thank you, Michelle, for opening up to us about all the hard work you've put into fulfilling your dreams. We would wish you the very best of luck in your future endeavors, but we know you don't need luck. You've got determination and a fantastic imagination. You're going to go far in publishing, we have no doubt!
And as for our readers, we hope you'll give Dumpster Dying (and all of Birdie's future books) a chance and pick up a copy today! You can do so HERE. And to check out Michelle's other books, take a look at her website HERE.