Monday, May 21, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 1): Wherever You're Standing

Before we begin, a story:

It was winter 2005 in Wyoming. I was dirt poor, living with my in-laws, and driving a 50 ft. bus full of coal miners to and from the mines in the most god-awful, 20-below, white-out snowstorms you could imagine.

We're there. I think.

I was 15 hours away from everyone I knew--except my newly-minted wife of just over a year--and I was depressed in a way I had never thought possible. The only escape were library audio books, mostly Stephen King, piped into my head through a dangling earbud as I drove the same Wyoming roads twice a day, back and forth, with only 7 hours of down time between runs. On my days off, cramped in our small basement living space, I was discovering alcohol, and my life had become something I didn't recognize.

It was here that I wrote my first good story.

It was a simple premise: a man trapped in a failing marriage is gifted with horrible nightmares in which he murders his wife over and over; the imagery is so awful, it prompts him to treat her well in real life, thus saving his marriage. It wasn't great, but it was passably good, the first good thing I had written, and it was the first time in my life I thought maybe I could be a writer.

I had told stories my entire life in one form or another. As a kid, I recorded fake news broadcasts with my brothers, made up superheroes whose adventures we acted out in the front yard, and blatantly ripped off Jim Davis' Garfield comics in my own series of strips, "Little Bo," about a Zebu calf and his half-water buffalo guardian. (We'll talk more about Little Bo later in my series "Owning Comics.")

We made asses up just so we could kick them.
When I was nine, I started making up my own ghost stories (blame this) and having my dad type them out in language that didn't sound so nine year-oldish. (I have the coolest Dad in the world, by the way.) Soon, though, I didn't want to write on Dad's schedule, so I struck out on my own, hunt-and-pecking out pages and pages of utter shit practice stories. I was frustrated with my limitations, but there was something about making stuff up that had me hooked. It was like everything else--school, church, chores--was in black and white, and any opportunity to be creative made the world explode with color.

But it wasn't until I was fifteen--sitting in an upstairs bedroom at my grandparents house over Christmas, fan blowing in my face, the toasty smell of the furnace from downstairs all around--that I read The Hobbit, and for the first time, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

I told you all this for a reason. If you recognize my life because you're living your version of it, if you say, "Yes, that's me," (amen, hallelujah) then I want to help you. Maybe you're where I was after writing my first good story that winter in Wyoming, flipping through the Writer's Market, feeling totally overwhelmed and lost and small, wondering if your work will ever see print. Maybe you're where I was after reading The Hobbit, full of enthusiasm and desire, but not really sure where to start learning your craft. Maybe you know you want to create things, but you're still trying things out, searching for your medium.

Those are all great places to be, and they're all frustrating places to be. I want to help you enjoy and escape those places. I want to walk alongside you, from wherever you're standing, right to the threshold of your first professional short story sale. I want to tell you what nobody told me and--this is my hope--to save you a year or two of your writing life.

(If, on the other hand, you've sold some pro stories or a novel already, chances are this blog series won't be of much use to you, except maybe as an amusing trip down memory lane or a surprising look into another writer's process. If you're at a place where most of the advice in this blog doesn't apply to you, I hope you'll share it with someone you think might need it. We all started a zero, after all, and we've all asked for this kind of advice a time or two.)

This is not a writing course; it's an early career how-to. It's a step 1, step 2 process. I'll be getting into the craft of writing and what a pro story is (if you don't learn this, the rest won't matter), but I'll also be blogging about what markets to send to, how to learn from your idols (sometimes literally from them), how to meet other pro writers who will actually help you in your career and not hurt you (sorry Local Writing Group; if you're not helping each other create selling work, you're doing it wrong), and how to plan your career so you have the best possible chance of winning beginner/new writer awards that could mean big money and exposure. (Wish somebody would have clued me in!) We'll even take a look at that "next level" beyond the first sale, what that means, and how to reach for it.

Repeat after these jackasses:
"There's hope! Zaba-zoot-ZOW!"
Do you feel that? That's called hope. And it's fine to let yourself feel it. If you've ever thought selling a story felt impossible, like a far-off hypothetical thing, I can tell you, a day will come when you will look back on it, when it will be something you did a few years ago, and it will feel so small and so easy, you'll forget what the big deal was. When that day comes, I want to ask you a favor:

Don't forget. Remember how hard it was. Then help other people get where you are. (And don't forget to keep learning from the people who are where you want to be.)

Can't wait to get started, my friends. See you next Monday when we'll get into "Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is."

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