Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Literary Herpes

Okay, I lied. I said that I was going in with IDIOT AGENT #1. But then I realized that there was another incident at the beginning of my so-called career that made an indelible mark on the delusions that plagued me regarding the business of writing.

And if you don't think writing is business, stop right now. Seriously. Stop reading here. Not just this post, but this blog as a whole. I've met many a writer who lives with the dream that all it takes is a book deal, then you spend the rest of your life on a red carpet. If you do, you're an idiot. I can say this, because I was that idiot.

There's an old saying: The worst thing that can happen to a gambler is that he wins.

Come back with me now to the halcyon days of 2002. We were all apologizing to Ms. Jackson, and a young Vin Diesel was confusing the pornographically-minded in xXx. I was finishing a novel and had a couple of short stories in the trunk.

And I didn't know what the hell to do with any of them.

I read the trade mags, which didn't tell me much. If I want bullshit inspirational platitudes, I'll spend an afternoon in the Hallmark store. The advice and feel-good success stories would have been useful, had I been a brain-damaged lunatic, shoving nuts and berries up my holes. But being a human being of reasonable common sense, telling me to present myself professionally wasn't anything earth-shattering. And success stories just pissed me off. I didn't want to read how wonderful other writers' lives were. I wanted advice on how to become that success story. I got zip.

The only two magazines publishing the genre regularly (that I knew about at the time) were Ellery Queen and Hitchcock -- not the most literarily progressive tomes. Needless to say, I sent my stories in. They were rejected (file under: No Shit).

Then, lo and behold, Writers Digest was holding their annual short story contest. Figured, what the hell. Sent 'em three short stories.

Then the worst possible thing happened. I got two honorable mentions (although I do believe that an honorable mention in this contest is tantamount to getting a medal at the Special Olympics - pretty much everyone gets one). Then I took third in genre fiction with So Long, Johnny Scumbag. AND they wanted to print it in their Years Best Writing issue! AND they were paying me cash money!

Holeeeee sheeeeyit! This writing thing was going to be a piece of cake. So Long, Johnny Scumbag was only the second story I'd ever written. And there I was, making a months' rent just like that. I immediately began banging out short stories, figuring:
1) I must be good at this shit.
2) There's money to be made.
3) I want that money, and they will give it to me since I'm so good at this shit.

The reality:
1) I actually wasn't very good at this shit. So Long, Johnny Scumbag is a story I'm still proud of, but I think it was more of a broken clock being right twice a day scenario. I still have a couple of those quick bang-out stories. They're irredeemably awful. There's one in particular, and I'm not even sure why, but just seeing the title makes me want to write a letter of apology to Lawrence Block.
2) There's pretty much no money to be made.
3) I still want that money. I hope I've gotten better at this shit, but since that glorious month back in 2002, I've published 15 short stories for a grand total income of $25.00. That's not even a months' rent in Detroit.

The lag time between what I figured and what the hard reality was occurred over three years, give or take. Month after month, my (over)confidence deflating, rejection after rejection.

The bad news was that I wasted three years under the delusion that I could maybe not only make a living doing these short stories, but at least supplement my income.


The good news is that those early stories never got published. Today, with the glut of magazines on the web, I'm sure that somewhere, there's an editor shoving berries in his holes. An editor who might have thought those stories were as good as I thought they were nine years ago. And once that berry-smeared story is out? In the digital age, man, that shit doesn't go away. It's out there, with you forever.

Literary herpes.

Oh, and Mr. Block? I am so, so sorry.

1 comment:

  1. I, uuuummmm, yeah, I probably would've published 'em. But I dig your voice, so sue me!