New year, new you — new hobbies. In the 2016 edition of Project PHX, our annual how-to guide, we're here to help with DIY projects that range from doable to dreamy. Learn how to build a tiny house and make your own chocolate. Become an embroidery artist, publish your first novel, and maybe dye your hair gray (or not).
"I wonder if all along there was a writer somewhere inside of me," says Anne Wilson. "My whole life up to now has had nothing to do with writing. In high school, I was all about math and science. Then I joined the Navy and flew helicopters."
Wilson is a Naval Academy graduate with a degree in ocean engineering who had, until very recently, a secret desire to write. Her secret is out; so is her first novel. Hover, published late last year by Forge Books, is about a Navy helicopter pilot on deployment who meets a cute but mysterious guy. A super-secret SEAL mission and plenty of death-defying romance ensue.
After leaving the military 17 years ago, Wilson began rethinking her approach to life. "The further I got from the structure of the military, where you have to shut a lot of yourself off, the more I began to get parts of myself back. The feminine, right-brain side of me started to resurface."
And yet, for the plot of her first book, she returned to her military roots. Wilson, a mother of two who owns a Fountain Hills triathlon training company with her husband, emits a polite sigh when asked if Hover is a roman à clef. "There's a lot of me in Sara, my main character," the Phoenix native admits. "I pulled out old journals from my Navy days, and a lot of the scenes I wove into the story came from there."
Even with her own book deal, Wilson still has a tough time thinking of herself as a "real" writer. She took up writing, she says, as a means of escape.
"Life is pretty darn depressing," she confides. "I wrote as a way to get away from that."
An avid reader, she began crafting her own stories on a whim. "I was out running one day," she recalls, "and I was thinking about what book I would read next, the kind of book I wanted to read. I was thinking, 'I want it to have this kind of hero and this sort of story.' By the time I finished my run that day, I had the premise of this imaginary book. I sat down and wrote the first chapter right then."
Wilson learned how to write, she says, by doing it. "It's embarrassing to admit that. I feel like a fraud. Other writers have all this training, but I haven't studied writing. I've read books about how to write and taken some webinars. Nothing formal. So, even though I have a book published and an editor and an agent and the whole thing, the phrase 'I'm a writer' does not flow easily from my mouth."
She had no intention of publishing anything or even showing her first three novels to anyone but her husband. "He told me one night hat each of my stories was better than the last," Wilson remembers. "I started wondering if I couldn't take this to the next level. But then I had no idea what to do. I had to Google 'how to get published.'"
When fledgling writers ask how to get started, Wilson tells them to write the kind of book they would most like to read themselves. And she recommends lots of editing.
"I know I'm not supposed to," she says, "but I just love the editing. And believe me, there's a lot of it. I like the streamlining, and the rearranging, over and over and over. It's hard for me to go back and smooth out what I've already done, but if I don't do it, my editor will just ask me to later."
Wilson stops short of recommending a particular writing process. "I have a non-process," she confesses. "With the kids and the job, it's hard to have a set schedule. I write sometimes before my sons get up in the morning, and I write in my car in parking lots, and in waiting rooms. I do always have a notebook with me. I don't write with an outline, and I usually write the key chapters first, where the important things happen. Right now, my agent is asking me for the synopsis for my next book, and I'm banging my head against the wall because I have no idea how the story ends!"
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Wilson is sheepish about her reading habits. "I'm not a great reader. I'm not reading Dostoevsky. I read a lot of the suspense authors my agent represents. On my bedside table I have The Temple of Doubt by Anne Boles Levy. I read Game of Thrones, Tolkien, Tom Clancy. I just read normal things."
She's still unsure what to say when people ask her what kind of fiction she writes. "My publisher says it's women's fiction," she says with a little laugh. "But then Suspense magazine did a 'Best of 2015' list, and I was one of the writers on the list for romantic suspense. Who knew I wrote romantic suspense? My Kirkus review made my book sound like a thriller, with no mention of the love story at all."
What does a Navy vet turned triathlon trainer turned first-time author do next? "I'd love to go back and edit my first three books and try to sell them," Wilson muses. "But I looked at one of them the other day and thought, 'Oh, God, how awful!'"
Wilson persists in telling people she had no idea what she was doing when she began. "And I like to tell everyone how I stopped counting rejection letters after the 60th one," she says. She encourages would-be writers to keep at it and not to worry about what comes next. "Just get the writing done," she says. "And then whatever comes next will come next."