Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trunk Fiction and Surrender

I tried for many years to become a professional writer. Now, there are lots of different definitions for "professional writer". Most writers organizations have settled on a definition that essentially says that a person has made a certain amount of sales at a rate that has been agreed upon by its members as being "professional rates". It's all a matter of coming to an agreement among the founding members and, perhaps, amendments by officers at a later date. Many set a rate of, say, five cents per word as a professional rate. Or fifty dollars per page for some kind of script. Or one thousand dollars for a novel advance. (These numbers are all arbitrary on my part...don't hold any group to them.)

I considered myself having become a professional writer when I had sold stories and scripts to national publications for money that made a difference to me. But I never felt that I had reached my actual goal until I sold my first novel which was published by Five Star Books in 2006. That was when I felt I'd crossed a certain threshold.

This year, I stand to make as much or more through writing than I do in my regular 40-hour a week job as a government employee. For the first time in my writing life I feel that I've really surpassed most definitions for being a pro writer. Save one, of course.

The last wall to breach would be to be able to make my living writing full time. That's a really tough nut to crack. Writers rarely have enough money to kick the day job, and they rarely are in a position to be able to afford health care and such on the money they earn from their prose. I'd like to hit that point, but it's going to be the most difficult goal for me to reach. It's possible that I could do it, and for the first time in my life I feel that there is a good possibility for me to be able to do that. Nothing would make me happier than being able to walk away from the daily grind to create art full time.

One reason that I've been able to get this far is that I never quite gave up. I got really discouraged all along the way. In fact, a couple of times I actually did give up. These surrenders lasted a few months each time, but I always got over my depression and started writing again, and started submitting work again, and kept trying to locate a good agent or squeeze my way into the next market at which I was aiming.

I tend to look back at a story I wrote as an example of why it's good never to give up and never to lie down and let the bad guys win.

When I was 26 years old I wrote a story based on some notes I'd jotted in a notebook when I was 16 years old. I kept that notebook around and kept seeing those notes every so often when I'd go through my plots and scribblings. It was a good idea but I never could quite figure out how to turn it into a complete story. Finally, by the time I was 26 I had written it down as good prose and started submitting it.

Back then, I had no name among editors at all. No one really knew me, but now and again I'd sell a short story or a comic script. So when "Visitation" started making its rounds I had a hard time selling it. Most editors seemed to like it, but not enough to accept it and pay me professional rates. I made a huge list of all of the magazines and anthologies that might be in the least bit interested in such a horror story and mailed it out time and again. This was in the days of submitting via the post office with return postage affixed. So the story kept going out and back and out again incessantly. I had a lot of faith in that story and I just didn't want to give up on it.

Finally, after several years of trying to sell it, I decided that enough was enough and I filed it away as a "trunk" story. That is, I put it in that dusty bin with the other stories that I'd written that just weren't good enough or lucky enough to move. But I put it on the top of the stack.

Years would pass, and I'd take it up and send it out. Not very often, of course, but now and again. Three times a year. Twice a year. Once a year. A year or two came when I didn't send it out at all. Then, in 2001 I got word that editors were reading for an anthology that I figured the story would fit. So I hauled out "Visitation" and dusted it off, altered it a tad, and sent it out. It sold. Eighteen years after I'd written it I was paid very well for that short story. It appeared in the Pocket Books anthology CHILDREN OF CTHULHU edited by Benjamin Adams and John Pelan. The story had sold, and finally saw print in a fine anthology in hardback and in mass market paperback.

I had just not given up on that story. It took me almost eighteen years, but I sold it.

Just like I never (really) gave up on becoming a novelist.

My dad used to keep a little poem in his wallet. It was called "Just Keep On Keepin' On". I've heard this poem attributed to Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers and other recording artists. But my dad had that poem on a tattered page that he kept in his wallet years before any of those guys got going (the Allman Brothers, in fact, lived down the street from us in Macon GA--I used to hear them jam every once in a while). My dad liked that poem and he'd read it aloud from time to time. It must have stuck with me.

Keep On Keepin' On

By Anonymous

If the day looks kinder gloomy
And your chances kinder slim,
If the situation's puzzlin'
And the prospect's awful grim,
If perplexities keep pressin'
Till hope is nearly gone,

Just bristle up and grit your teeth
And keep on keepin' on.

Frettin' never wins a fight
And fumin' never pays;
There ain't no use in broodin'
In these pessimistic ways;
Smile just kinder cheerfully
Though hope is nearly gone,
And bristle up and grit your teeth
And keep on keepin' on.

There ain't no use in growlin'
And grumblin' all the time,
When music's ringin' everywhere
And everything's a rhyme.
Just keep on smilin' cheerfully
If hope is nearly gone,
And bristle up and grit your teeth
And keep on keepin' on.

Maybe not the highest peak, but it's pretty darned good.


Stuart said...

Bob, this is terrific.
You didn't know this (only a few people do), but I've been writing a book, off and on, for about three years now. I hope to finish it this year, and if it gets rejected a few hundred times I'll just keep this story in mind.
This remnds me of an early Woody Allen joke:
For a long time I labored over what I felt might be The Great American Novel, but the print was too small so I returned it to the library.

HemlockMan said...

You have to just keep plugging away. I know it sounds like an old-fashioned idea, but in my case it was true.

Of course, as Bill Nolan said recently, it's pointless to begin without some amount of talent for the task. I'm sure you've got that. I look forward to reading your work.