I started wanting to be a writer not long after I started being a reader, at about the same time as I realized that books were things made by people, and not just the naturally occurring fruit of the fiction tree.
I wrote a lot of really awful stories and poetry in junior high and high school — the kind of thing that the term “juvenilia” was invented to cover, and thank God this was before the internet and the permanent archiving of everything, because if I’m lucky all of it got thrown out years ago — and finished my first book-shaped object during the summer between high school and college. It pretty much stank on ice, but I remember it fondly nonetheless, because I finished it and learned a lot about writing in the process. (Among other things, I learned that it’s a very bad idea to set an important action sequence in a cave, or in any other place without natural or artificial light. Your characters will spend far too much time fumbling with lanterns and lamps and candles, and you’ll have to keep track of who’s holding which and what gets dropped when and what happens when all the lights go out. I eventually gave up and — I told you the story stank on ice — resorted to lighting the whole scene with magically glowing rocks. I would have been better off revising the plot to get rid of the cave entirely, but I didn’t know that then.)
The short stories I wrote as a college undergrad weren’t much better; I was starting to get a handle on the concept of a prose style, but not so much of a handle on the concept of plot. I made my first attempt at selling to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during that time, and — not actually much to my surprise — failed to succeed. I took another stab at writing a novel during my senior year, but the plot bogged down in Too Much Epic at about the same time as I got accepted into the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, and the book never got finished. Bits and pieces of some of the themes and characters got recycled years later, though, so it wasn’t a total loss.
I only wrote one short story during the time I spent at UPenn — a Norse saga pastiche that damn-near wasn’t even in English — because Academia was taking up nearly all the available space in my brain. The degree was totally worth it, though, not least because I learned that I could work for seven years on a project and carry it through to completion. I also learned that the answer to “How long did it take you to write that book?” can be either “several years” or “a couple of months”, depending upon how you look at the process.
Two things started me writing seriously again: the advent of affordable home computers (see “Down 48K Memory Lane“) and the sheer blinding boredom involved in being a Navy wife in an overseas billet in a country where reading material in English was not easily come by. Those were the days before the commercial internet, when modems ran at 300 bits per second, 8-bit ASCII text files ruled the world, and new books arrived in town via slow boat from Hoboken. If we wanted fresh fiction, we were going to have to roll our own, and so we did. We eventually sold some of it, too, and that was the start of our freelance career.
(It was another two decades after that, however, before we finally sold a story to F&SF. Persistence pays.)