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March 1, 2017

Transitioning from Math to Writing --- Guest Post by Erika Lewis, Author of GAME OF SHADOWS


If you're anything like us at Teenreads, you would rather have your head stuck in a novel than in a math textbook. But Erika Lewis, author of GAME OF SHADOWS, came to writing a different way. GAME OF SHADOWS, Lewis's debut, follows Ethan Makkai, who lives in L.A. and can see ghosts. When his overprotective mother is kidnapped, it is up to Ethan to save her --- but he gets more than he bargains for when he learns about a mythological land and his connection to it. Erika Lewis always loved to write, but was not always the biggest reader. In this post, Erika shares her journey from being a math major in college to a published author. For Erika, math is a lot more similar to writing than you might think. 

"How did you become a writer?"
All authors get asked that question. It’s usually coming from someone curious about writing, and how an author's education and career led to what they’re doing today. It’s a good question --- but I have an unexpected answer: I was a Math major in college. Yes, I LIKE math. I was always good at it. Unlike my chaotic life at home, numbers made sense to me. They added up a certain way and you knew if you had the right answer or not. Black and white. Right and wrong. It was that simple. But I also loved to write. I would start stories all the time but had trouble finishing them, mainly because of one big stumbling block: I wasn’t a very good reader. Don’t get me wrong, I knew how to read, but it was exhausting for me, and without reading you don’t see examples of structure and can’t build a bank of descriptive vocabulary to use. Speaking interactions alone are simply not enough --- at least they weren’t for me.
True fact: reading is exercise for the eyes. You have to build stamina to read for long periods of time --- something no one ever told me. I could run all day long. I played soccer and basketball, practicing for hours at a time. No biggie, my muscles were accustomed to it. But when I had to read, it wore me out, and with TV being the popular thing in our house, no one made me read or exercise my eyes.
It was in the seventh grade that I was required by my school to read Ray Bradbury’s DANDELION WINE. It was a simple summer story about a boy at his grandparents, but I fell in love with the book and with Ray Bradbury. It didn’t matter if my eyes got tired, I kept reading. I wanted to “stay in the story,” to live and breathe each and every moment, to curl up inside the book. After I finished it, I moved on to SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, then FAHRENHEIT 451. I found my favorite genre in science fiction and fantasy, but still, I wasn’t an avid reader. And to be a good writer, you HAVE to read. You have to build vocabulary and gain an understanding of the rhythm of the English language (my native language). Finding a voice as a writer takes time, and I had a late start.
In college, I majored in math. It was interesting and fun for me. Differential Equations and Abstract Algebra were my friends. The language of math is universal. It also has a rhythm and flow, like English, with constants that you can count on and variables that you can’t. It can be playful and intriguing once you understand how to read it, just like English. But I also found romance novels in college, classics like Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUIDCE and Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I also took a few theatre classes. I’d always enjoyed acting, and had even done a few commercials when I was a kid with my aunt and my brother. I distinctly remember an orange juice commercial because I hate pulp and they made me drink OJ with pulp. You’re paid to do it, so you do --- but I digress… 
When I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my math degree, but I loved television and applied for an internship in Atlanta at CNN. I went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, so Atlanta wasn’t too far. After a phone interview I was stunned when they offered me the gig. I later asked my boss why she gave a math major the chance. She said because I looked at things in a very clinical way in the interview and she felt she could count on me to triple check that all questions in a story were answered. My math brain working in news had paid off.

I learned quickly that I didn’t love working in news. I soon left for Los Angeles and scripted programming, eventually working my way up to being a development executive, which meant reading scripts --- a lot of scripts --- which, ironically, are completely formulaic! Act structure is entirely mathematical! You can fill the inside with whatever you want, wherever your imagination takes you. Books are less formulaic, but then again, I had a very high-profile agent tell me that the best books to transition to films are written in the 3-act structure with 9 chapters per act. How ironic that something as artistically unstructured as writing a book was turned into a specific mathematical formula?
Most schools in K-12 stress science and math over English and creative writing because of the job market. I get it --- but I would argue that math and writing have a lot in common. Even English majors can be good in math. It’s just exercising that part of your brain. I know it hurts, but it gets easier the more you do it!
When I started on GAME OF SHADOWS, I first outlined the story. It was very fulfilling to get to the end of it and make sure no storyline hadn’t been finished, no character forgotten along the journey, and that my world building all made sense. But when I started writing the book, the characters weren’t behaving the way I wanted them to, and they pushed me to have to change things up in my outline, to jump off the cliff with them --- and it was really, really fun! Ethan Makkai, the protagonist, is impulsive and challenging, especially for me. He’s always doing the one thing he’s been told not to, but then again, that’s what I love about him! Lily Niles grows to love that about him, too. As a girl used to having her way, she’s defiant and strong-willed, but more levelheaded. When Ethan doesn’t listen to her, she’s forced out of her comfort zone, having to adjust, like me, to his impulsiveness, most times saving him from his courageous stupidity.
So my point of being a math major who now loves to write? Like characters in a book, life takes many twists and turns, always leading to the next chapter, one that will invariably throw an unexpected curveball at your head. What would you do if that happened? Would you duck and take a chance it’d hit you, or jump completely out of the way? Or maybe, just maybe, if you're impulsive like Ethan, you’d try and catch it!