I published my first story for Captain Planet.


It was 1992—back when “Save the Earth” was still a slogan for hip awareness rather than a dire social imperative—and my local library hosted a Captain Planet-themed writing contest for schoolchildren. The winning entry, a short story scrawled in a six-year-old’s uneven penmanship, featured a “rude dude” who reforms from a litterer into a paragon of environmental stewardship. Looking back, it wasn’t much of a story. But standing at the rickety podium beside some guy in a superhero costume and reading my piece aloud, it struck me that stories are more than just entertainment—they’re a lens for helping people see the world differently. This first-grade experience set me on a path that eventually led to my debut novel, Blue Karma. But I had a lot more writing lessons to learn before reaching that milestone.


A decade later, as geeky teenager obsessed with superheroes and The Lord of the Rings, fiction still dominated my brain, but I lacked confidence in my ability to tell an original story. Most of my plots were knockoffs of favorite books and movies, and I knew it. Desperate to quell the writing compulsion, I turned to the popular street drug of young writers: fan fiction. Comic books may vary in their degree of sophistication, but there’s no denying that superheroes are some of the most complex and delightfully dysfunctional characters in all of fiction. No matter what I did with them, they made a story interesting, and plots seemed to generate spontaneously. At the time I worried fan fiction was a waste of my talent (I could be writing my first novel right now! I’d berate myself before cranking up some angsty pop music and crafting another scene where Wolverine and Storm make out after battling both the forces of evil and their own tortured emotions) but looking back, that’s where I learned the value of engaging characters. Fan fiction showed me that stories aren’t about plots, they’re about people. The plot is simply what happens when characters interact with the world around them.


My own plot took a turn when I pursued writing in college. I chose a university with one of the most highly acclaimed creative writing programs in the country. Imagine my dismay when the creative writing workshop syllabus decreed, in hateful bold type, “NO SCIENCE FICTION OR FANTASY.” Instead of opening up my creative potential, the workshops shut me down. Praise for my class submissions rang hollow because those pieces were, for me, empty homework assignments. The inventions of my passion—tales of cyborgs and time travel and sinking cities—stayed hidden in my dorm, like an embarrassing relation I could neither introduce nor disown. Science fiction became my dirty secret. I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Creative Writing and a massive complex about my ability as a writer. Over four years of college, the self-doubt that had shackled my writing as a teenager added a weighty ball to its chain: the obligation to be “literary”. Nothing of substance left my pen for almost three years. It was the dark night of my writer’s soul.


But, like all spiritual crises worth experiencing, this once eventually led to an epiphany. Mine started with The Hunger Games. A friend lent me his copy with the endorsement “This book is just horrible. Teenagers slaughtering each other! Ugh! You have to read it and see what I mean.” Three pages in, that book seized me and wouldn’t let me go. Reading hadn’t possessed me so completely since adolescence, when I’d spent hours absorbed in Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels. This is the kind of story Ive always loved, the kind I should be writing! I thought. Millions of people, including me, really enjoyed this story. If it can achieve that, who cares if it ever gets on an English department reading list? Katniss Everdeen’s arrow shattered the cold wall academia had built around my imagination and set my stories free. I began writing again; tentatively at first, but growing bolder with each page.


Rediscovering young adult fiction also changed the way I thought about writing books. The genre’s richly flawed characters and clean, fast plot lines suited my style of storytelling. But which story to tell first? I had a ten-year backlog of ideas jostling for expression. As the incomparable Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” The book I most wanted to read was about the future of water. I’d dreamed up a vague narrative about ice pirates and global drought in my teens, and the notion gnawed at my brain every time I read a news headline about water shortages. By 2013, I decided that if I didn’t tell that story soon, I’d be writing it as historical fiction. Thus I finally began Blue Karma and my journey from the library podium came full-circle, returning to environmental fiction.


Blue Karma synthesized all I’d learned about the social power of fiction and letting characters drive the plot. More importantly, it proved to me that good stories come in many forms, and writing for popular tastes is no lesser pursuit than writing something conventionally literary. Once I embraced that truth, I plunged into the depths of authorship and never looked back. I’m now writing almost daily, with more passion and confidence than I’ve ever had before. In the twenty plus years between my Captain Planet essay and my debut novel, I’ve learned a lot about writing and about myself. But publishing my first book wasn’t the end of the journey. On the contrary, it’s opened up a whole new territory, one I can’t wait to explore.


About the Author

J.K. Ullrich likes to joke that she began writing environmental fiction at age six, when she won the local library’s Captain Planet essay contest. In the ensuing 20+ years, she earned a B.A. in English and pursued a successful career in analytical writing, although fiction remains her true passion. She published her debut novel, Blue Karma, in 2015. When she’s not reading or writing, you can find her running on a favorite trail, jamming with a local cover band, or yelling at her baseball team. Keep up with J.K. on her website, www.jkullrich.com.


Blue Karma




Water. It covers almost three-quarters of the planet, comprises more than half the human body, and has become the most coveted resource on Earth.

Amaya de los Santos survived the typhoon that left her an orphan. Now she scrapes by as an ice poacher, illegally harvesting fresh water for an always-thirsty market. But when she rescues an injured enemy soldier, she’s pulled into a storm of events more dangerous than any iceberg. After years of relying only on herself, she must learn to trust another…or risk losing all that’s left of her family.

Logan Arundson should be dead. After a mysterious attack destroys his military unit, he abandons his Arctic post for his native California, where droughts have made water a religion and a resource worth killing for. But when the water wars follow him home, he must face his frozen demons if he wants to save his town…and the girl he loves.

Paul Hayes is heir to an empire. But being vice president of a powerful hydrology company isn’t all gardens and swimming pools: he deals with ice poachers, water rights, and the crushing expectations of his CEO mother. His investigation into company sabotage and the miraculous appearance of a lake in a small California town lead him to a shocking discovery…and an impossible decision.

Blue Karma is a story of choices and consequences, humanity and love.


Buy it now on Amazon


One thought on ““From Captain Planet to Blue Karma: One Writer’s Journey to Authorship” by J.K. Ullrich

  1. Very good article. I’m dealing with some of these issues as well..

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