Father’s Day Reflections on Getting My First Reader’s Review

My Dad, namesake, and the man who inspired my love of literature: Eric Sparks Sr.

Normally, I try to post blogs on tips for writing, or reactions to literature and/or criticism of literature. But today, I’m going to be a little selfish. My first Beta Readers have my first novel, and I’m going to give a little bit of a writer’s bio, as well as a bit of a preview Tales of Lugon.

My love of literature began early in life. My family has me on “video” reading AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (not the Disney picture books) at the age of two. I couldn’t actually read yet (though I was reading long before I ever set foot in a school), but was so in love with stories that I actually had memorized them and would read them to myself, word-for-word, and even knowing when to turn the page.

My father greatly deepened my love of reading when I was very young by reading to me J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, complete with unique voices for every character. I think I was 5 years old? He read it to me multiple times, and read LOTR to me when I was seven. I read both for myself when I was eight.
As a child, I never really thought of writing my own stories, nor was I really encouraged to do so. I come from a family of engineers, with my Dad (a chemical engineer) being the only one in the family who enjoyed actually studying books, enjoying them far beyond just the surface of the plot. My Dad loved sports, specifically team sports, because of the social skills they taught. So, though my reading was encouraged, the skills I was encouraged to pursue all involved athleticism or intellectual, focusing on math and science.
Then, I hit an unexpected bump in eighth-grade honors Algebra. I discovered I absolutely could not grasp it. Day-to-day math, yes. Geometry, yes. Algebra? No. Calculus? That was laughable. It became very clear that I wasn’t going to follow in the family business. And, at least when I was in school, “Reading/English” focused mainly on grammar, not literature, beyond one quarterly book report. I also was rapidly losing interest in sports because they were getting more competitive, and that’s simply not my nature. I liked to play, but they certainly didn’t feel like “games” anymore; they were cutthroat!

Fortunately, my freshman year of high school started having English classes focus primarily on literature instead of grammar, and I dove into this subject with renewed fervor. English went from being my weakest class to my strongest. And, near the end of the school year, we were given an assignment – to write a short story of at least 5000 words.
I had never tried to write my own story. Not because I hated writing. If anything, I was just so enamored with the amazing authors I read, it just never occurred to me to even try. It was like I had this unvoiced belief that writers are just born as geniuses of written communication, and anointed at birth, knowing this was their destiny. I had not been anointed, and thus I could not have been called to write.

But something awoke in that project. I was actually a fairly disciplined student and started working on this the night it was assigned, two weeks before it was due. And, on that first night, a Monday, I was so overwhelmed with possibilities and thoughts that I couldn’t sleep. Once I knew my folks were asleep, I turned my lamp on and pulled out my notebook and just kept writing until 2 AM. Right then and there, I decided I was going to start writing, just for fun. That I might have skill never occurred to me – remember, I was not anointed a writer at birth.

I worked on it for the rest of the week and then asked my Dad to help proof it, not really thinking it was anything special. Quite frankly, my Dad wasn’t expecting anything special. But 30 minutes later, he came to talk to me and sat on my bed and asked, respectfully, but concerned. “Is this story completely yours or did you base it on one you know?”

Now, for a brief explanation of the story – it was about a man and boy who find themselves shipwrecked on an uncharted island between Florida and Cuba (yes, I realize the ridiculousness of that now), and their attempts to get off the island. It ends…darkly. But it was original. The only story of shipwrecked people I knew was Gilligan’s Island, and this wasn’t nearly so happy-go-lucky, though, with my 15-year old sense of drama, you might think it just as bizarre. I had actually never read any of the famous shipwrecked classics like Robinson Crusoe.

When I told him it was completely out of my own head, he right then and there told me, “I wish I had known about this talent sooner – I wouldn’t have been pushing you towards math and science. Would you like to switch your honors courses to English and History?” I was blown away. My Dad didn’t exactly believe in participation trophies. He really liked my story. I was both happy and embarrassed, but, being 15, I just assumed he was seeing it for much better than it was.

But then, something else happened. My teacher loved it. 100% A+, with notes gushing over it. But it didn’t stop there. With 120 students, she picked 3 to be sent off to a competition to be published into an anthology of short stories written by high schoolers. I was the only one to get in.

I was gobsmacked. The first piece of creative writing I ever made had just been well-received by everyone that read it. I thought about maybe making a career as an author. My Dad, though he believed in my talent, was also a realist. He told me, “You definitely need to be studying English – maybe teach it someday. But trying to make it as a writer is a lot like trying to make it as a musician. Just because you’re good, doesn’t mean you’ll get paid.”

Needless to say, I got my BA in English. Because I thought I was going to teach, I took the literature track, not the creative writing one. Plus, I figured the best way to learn how to write was to read constantly, something William Faulkner also believed (and I loved Faulkner). I had several short stories, memoirs, and even an occasional poem or two published (though my poetry being published proves that just because you get published doesn’t mean you are actually good).

And, during my junior year in college, I began a project in secret. I started to create my own world. A world of upheaval, where I could explore changes characters as wrought by the changes in their environment. I wanted to explore what continued to happen after every epic I had read reached “fin”. I named this world, “Lugon”.

I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. I had never written a novel. I had never written in a Fantasy World. I had never developed my own Fantasy world. And I decided to do all three of those things in one go. The first attempt…it went about as well as you could expect. I was far too interested in getting into the action and didn’t spend too much time building the rules that Lugon would function by. After 2 years, I had written myself into a corner, with magic being the only solution to solve it, which I didn’t want, but actually was quite possible. Exhausted and frustrated, I drug all 60,000 words I had written, along with the original outline, into the recycle bin and emptied it.

I literally spent the next year planning how the magic system in Lugon would work. The thing about magic is it’s kind of a Pandora’s box. Once you open it, you can’t really control how far it goes. But you can choose what type of box you are opening. After multiple failed attempts where I kept testing my magic system with throwaway stories to see if I could break it, I found my solution: limited scope, but no bounds on depth. Magic was restricted by race, and the things they could manipulate were very limited, but I would not limit the depth.

I also began to mull over how I was going to publish and promote the book. At the time, I still believed that self-publishing was only for people who couldn’t write and that there was no money to be made doing it. But I had at least learned that publishers would only publish what they believed would make money. So, I began to try to look at my book from a publisher’s investment perspective. I wasn’t sure where my book fell. Since my main characters were collegiate-aged, I guessed it would be “YA” – a genre that I didn’t really know about or read as a kid. But my book wasn’t overly graphic. It certainly never got as explicit as George R. R. Martin or Terry Goodkind did on occasion. And so, I tried to write how I thought a “YA” novel would sound.

This time, I was able to get all the way through the novel. But, when I finished and read it, I hated it. I hated my own book. I was embarrassed that my name would be on the cover if it ever got published. I never even shared it with someone. This time, I saved the outline, but I once again dragged and dropped the entire novel into the recycle bin and emptied it.

By this point, I had also learned that most authors that are traditionally published also still make virtually no money; certainly not enough to live on. Fifty Shades of Grey had also been published and destroyed any illusion that being a traditionally published author meant your writing was a work of genius. “Well, I’m going to write the book I want to write. I’ll self-publish. If people like it and it sells, great. If not, oh well. But I will pay for an original, professional cover and editing. The only thing I care about now is not being ashamed of my name on the cover, and hopefully finding at least a few people that enjoy it.”

It took me two years to write the book again, but it was so worth it. This third, final version went through 10 drafts in some (most) places, but at the end of it, I finally felt happy with what I wrote. It was now ready to be shared.

Unfortunately, my Father unexpectedly passed away in December, only 55 years old, of a massive heart attack, in spite of eating healthy and running 5 miles per day. So, I called my friends – people I knew loved to read the same books I did, but would also be honest with me. The night I gave them their copies, I didn’t sleep. I was violently ill all day at work the next day. But only three days later, the first reader finished it.

“It’s good, Eric. I would recommend it to anyone that likes Fantasy.”

Relief. So much relief. He then went on to say the ending was definitely the best part, putting a twist on an old device, and that my strongest points were my characters and my action scenes. Some of the parts I was most worried about and reworked and reworked he enjoyed.

And here I am today. On Father’s Day, reflecting on the journey my Dad encouraged me to start 15 years ago, wishing he was here for me to give him the gift he would have loved more than any other. But since he can’t be here to receive it, the only thing I can do is continue on the path he set me all those years ago, and continue to get better and better. My father would never care about me becoming well-known for writing, so long as I kept at it. I sincerely doubt any book written here has much merit in the world to come, but, just in case, I plan on writing for the rest of my life, and maybe I’ll be blessed to be able to finally hear what he liked about each book. Love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

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