On Turning Five

It hit me recently that I’m turning five years old as an author. I worry about drawing attention to that — should I allow potential assumptions that I’ve been doing this longer in order to hide myself in an air of seasoned experience and the long honing of skill? Should I flaunt my enrollment in Author Daycare? At age five, you still get birthday cake all over your face.

But everyone likes the number five for milestones and reflection. Looking back, it feels like such a long time. It feels like five breaths. I have hopes to use part of this post to speak to writers in general here, particularly those just starting out or perhaps a year or three into this “dream” and struggling, as we all do and have done, but it is necessarily my own party and so filled with a lot of Wehunt, too.

I mark Day One as September 3, 2011, which is when I submitted my very first story, but I started writing it a few weeks earlier. (I’d been writing it somewhere in a tiny corner of myself for decades.) And once that story, titled “Claire,” was quite rightfully rejected, I paused for reflection, because I knew it was the part of the movie where, while very early on in the script, I needed a montage. Something like the Stone Roses’ “This Is the One” is playing in the background, and I’m morosely wandering the rainy streets of Atlanta with my hands in my pockets (it rains a lot in Atlanta, actually). Would I quit or would I keep going? I surprised myself with a very brief montage. Ian Brown hadn’t yet gotten to the lyric about wanting to leave the country for a month of Sundays. Because, really, I already knew the answer before I even got the rejection email: I’d been putting off writing for so many years, always too scared to do it, that there was no way I could quit now that I had given it a shot. I had the taste of it. I could make terrible, malignant and beautiful, transcendent things happen to imaginary people (preferably all at once). It was too late. I was a goner.

I never submitted “Claire” a second time, but a few weeks later, I started writing another story. That one wasn’t very good, either. But I kept exploring this new world, and on the fourth try things began to click, to coalesce into real storytelling. Hey, I could do this! 2012 and 2013 were full of learning. Some joys and a great deal of frustration. The thing is, I was doing very well for myself for such an early stage, even if I couldn’t see the forest for the individual rejection trees. I see that forest now, even if I still struggle to see the current, larger forest.

But I got better simply by doing it, by putting one word in front of the other. I had a few stories published, most of which I still am proud of, but it wasn’t until the publication of “Onanon” in Shadows & Tall Trees in May of 2014 that I began to feel like a real author. I’ll always consider its editor, Michael Kelly of Undertow Publications, my fairy godfather because “Onanon” was the first story of mine that people were talking about in reviews and a handful of times on social media. Finally, it all felt really real. Ellen Datlow had “Onanon” on her shortlist for Best Horror of the Year, so while it didn’t quite make it into her celebrated anthology…it all felt really really real.

I met and got to know a lot of wonderful people. Many of them gave me a hand (as a horror author, I feel I must clarify that these weren’t actual hands) or a piece of advice, and I’ve tried to pay it forward. The rest of 2014 and 2015 saw the same not-fast-but-not-slow-either pace of writing output, sales, and publications. My bibliography became deserving of the word bibliography. But somewhere along the way, without even noticing it, things snowballed a bit. I was being mentioned. I was being invited to write stories for a few higher-profile anthologies. A couple of publishers asked me about a collection. The first time I said no, thank you, there’s no way I’m ready. The second time…

Greener Pastures came out this spring on Shock Totem Publications (who, fittingly, published my first “pro rate” short story back in early 2013). My debut collection has fared better than I dared to dream, keeping in mind that I had little idea of what was dreamable. It’s even being translated into Spanish next year. I won’t go on about the book here because there are 12,750 other references to it on this very site. But to its readers, I say thank you, so much.

So what have I learned, and can I yet impart bits of wisdom to any up-and-comers who might stumble across this? Maybe not quite yet. I’m only five, after all, and still smear my birthday cake all over my face. But at five you get angry if someone calls you a baby. So I’ll try, very briefly, to play veteran. There’s no need for me to: Google “being an author” or any variation and you’ll find a million articles telling you ten million things, almost all of which should be common sense. But it’s my birthday, and I want to speak to someone who’s in my 2012 shoes. I think it comes down to just a few essential qualities:

  • Talent – You gotta have at least some. Don’t let anyone sell you a book that says you don’t. You need at least enough to either have a unique voice or the ability to tell a story that people can’t put down. If you’re supremely fortunate, you’ll have both in your toolbox.
  • Time – Make it, and don’t worry if everyone else has more of it. God knows I’ve worried enough about this for all of us. But use what you have because it’s what you have. Someone out there has even less than you do, and they’re using it. Twenty minutes or an hour a day will add up, trust me. That’s usually where I am, practically hearing the clock ticking in my ears the whole time I’m banging away.
  • Wisdom – Want to see the world, and want to wonder about it out loud on paper. Seek out wisdom. Even if you only want to write from the perspective of brooms and mops that come to life and clean the house while their owner is at work, it still needs wisdom or it won’t have heart and soul. And foster the desire to read others’ wisdom. Read and read and read. Isn’t reading what got you into this?
  • Kindness – Make friends. Support your friends. Promote your friends and the strangers whose work you enjoy and are blown away by. As my friend Mike Griffin, a talented author in his own right, likes to quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
  • Persistence – Keep doing it. After five years, I find that it’s still frequently so very hard, for several different reasons at different times. You will feel unappreciated. If you’re serious about it all, you will at times feel worthless. You will feel like you should take up gardening or model trains instead. If you end up doing those things and being fulfilled, bless your heart, as we say down here in the South. Don’t let anyone tell you being an author is more noble than digging your hands into the rich earth. (It is more noble than Candy Crush, though.)
  • Resiliency – You will get rejected, and after you learn to deal with rejection, you’ll get rejected some more. Stories will get rejected. Entire books will get rejected. You’ll be unknown, then a little bit known but still mostly unknown. Not as known as her or him, damn them to hell. Then the maddening limbo where you’re pretty known but not known enough. Remember that it’s entirely possible you’ll never be known to the degree you want. But that hunger is your resiliency. It is also your patience. Success won’t just happen on its own. Let your soul starve until it’s bones and paper skin, then burn yourself full of magic. Always be filling yourself back up with everything.

So whether you’ve just written your very first story or you’re a workhorse shopping around your fortieth, there will be dark days. Dark weeks and maybe even dark months. Times where you wonder if it’s worth it — the money’s crap, the inertia drags, other writers are finding more success than you are, you’re stuck in a rut so deep its walls tower over your head. But only you can believe it’s worth it, and if you do, it is.

As for me…five years. Five mountains and five heartbeats. Nearly three dozen stories later (a few of which are coated in the dust they deserve), I am not the naive reader-turned-author I was back then, but he’s still close enough that I feel his uncertainty every day. Soon (or a very firm soonish) I’ll be starting my first novel. It’s terrifying. What if it’s no good? Or my true concern: What if it’s good but not very good? I have to find that out the hard way and the beautiful way. I still need the occasional montage scene while I gaze into the distance and soul-search. Perhaps I always will.

It’s been wonderful walking down this street for half a decade. I find myself taking my hands out of my pockets more and more often. I mix my metaphors by looking at the whole forest. City or wilderness, it’s my road. This is the one.

3 thoughts on “On Turning Five

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