M. Leighton: The Bestselling, Prolific Writer on 'How I Did It'


When I was approached by the lovely Karen to do a “How I Did It” post, I was both intrigued and a little intimidated.  Why, you ask? Well, mainly because I don’t really have an answer. Not a cut-and-dried one like some of the authors who’ve posted before me had. No, my story is much less … dramatic, I suppose. But, since you’re here and I’m here, I’m going to tell you all about it anyway. Here goes.

I began writing in 2009. Like many others, Twilight started me on the path to being an author. Before reading the books in June of that year, I had never written anything more than a letter or a college term paper, certainly nothing for recreational purposes. And yet, after the loss of my friends from Forks, it was the only way I could think of to find a story that could go on and on as long as I wanted it to. So I wrote my first book.

Fast forward to June of 2012. I’ve written and published over a dozen books, all of them young adult fiction that was modeled loosely after the Twilight series. Not in subject, but in content, I suppose. I thought there was a certain formula or recipe that one needed to follow in order to write young adult books, so I followed it. There was a bit of a problem with that, however. It seemed that my “voice” and my natural inclinations in writing were … older. Even though my books were labeled and intended for the younger crowd, and even though I kept them strictly appropriate for my readers, ninety percent of those diving into my work were ages twenty-two to fifty. I think they knew then what it took me a while to figure out—I don’t follow recipes very well.

After book eleven or twelve or so, I began to feel stifled and frustrated. I’m not much of a follower to begin with, and, frankly, I’m surprised I did it as long as I did. I pondered my problem for days and days that quickly turned into weeks.  My exasperation grew and grew until I finally decided to throw all the rules and regulations, all the rights and wrongs and do’s and don’ts, out the window. I decided to write a story straight from the heart. My heart. No recipe, no formula, just me and my imagination and a story that I wanted to tell. To all my friends and peers, I called this rebellious thing my “hail mary.” It wasn’t long afterward that it got a different name. A month later, The Wild Ones was born.

This story flowed from me, from my heart, maybe even from my soul. I sat down and I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I was so involved, so “in the moment” with these people, I used present tense for the first time. I’m not sure I even intended to do it; it just sort of happened. I was so dedicated to the story, I refused to stifle it in any way. I refused to pay attention to all the things I used to labor over whilst writing. I just wrote. I even alternated points of view so that each of my main characters could have their say, their moment, their time in the sun.

I’m telling you, for me and my previous works, this book broke all the rules. I took all my recipe cards and I tossed them in the trash. I used sentence fragments by the pound, I added non-words as substitutions and I seasoned liberally with colloquialisms. My concoction wasn’t the least bit practiced, planned or refined; it was as organic as anything I’ve ever created. And the result? My first book to reach just about every best seller list I can think of – The New York Times, USA Today, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. To me, and for most Indies, that was no small feat. I’m pretty sure my toes didn’t touch the ground for at least a week, maybe longer.

But it gets better.

The success of The Wild Ones drew the attention of one of the best literary agencies in the business, Trident Media Group. It was then that I was introduced to Kim Whalen.  She’s awesome. Plain and simple. And to prove it, the day after we decided to work together – the very next day – she brought me an offer from Berkeley, an imprint of the big six publisher, Penguin. What does that mean for me? Well, in another couple months I’ll be able to go into any number of bookstores and retailers and see my book on the shelf. My book. My hail mary. My rebellious baby. Is that such a big deal? To me, yes. It’s a dream come true.

So, after all that, the question remains, doesn’t it?  How did I do it? Well, your guess is as good as mine, but what I can tell you is this: writing something that rang true for me, something that felt right to me changed my life forever. And what I take from that is this: sometimes having no formula is the best formula of all.

M. Leighton is a native of Ohio. She relocated to the warmer climates of the South, where she can be near the water all summer and miss the snow all winter. Possessed of an overactive imagination from early in her childhood, Michelle finally found an acceptable outlet for her fantastical visions: literary fiction.   


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