Friday, August 28, 2009

"Dear Sir Or Madam, Won't You Read My Book?"

By Russel D McLean

I’ve been trying to remember when I reached the point of no return.

One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked – second only perhaps to “where do you get your ideas?” – is “Why did you want to become a writer?”

The best answer I’ve come up with so far is that I figured it was indoor work with no heavy lifting.

And I admit, that’s part of the appeal.

But it’s a tough question, because for me creating fiction always just been something I did. When I was a kid, playing with army figures and all the rest of it, I have distinct memories of creating narratives and characters. Somewhere my mum probably still has a copy of the “diary” they made us keep in primary school where I wrote week long serials which had clear beginnings, middles and ends and absolutely no basis in reality.

I have always loved stories. Becoming a writer, immersing myself in fiction completely, was probably a natural step.

That’s the best reason I can think of as to why I pursued this gig.

When I was younger, my dad made some money selling short stories that were broadcast on radio 4. What always struck me as strange was the idea that they paid people to make stuff up, to do what I was always doing inside my head; creating fanciful narratives that I knew weren’t true but that I wanted to believe in.

When I hit thirteen or so, I remember reading in Doctor Who Magazine about the “New Adventures” series of Doctor Who novels and how they encouraged submissions from new writers.

At sixteen I worked out how you submit to publishers. The internet – still in its early days, I guess, as a medium for mass communication – helped here. I remember making frequent trips to a cyber-café in Edinburgh very specifically to find Virgin Publishing’s submission guidelines. I learned very quickly that you do not type “Virgin Submission Guidelines” into an internet search engine.

I was also devouring the script columns of J Michael Straczynski in Writer’s Digest, to which my dad then had a subscription, and realising that, wow, people were getting paid good money to make things up. And I figure if they could do it, maybe I had a crack. I didn’t have too many other useful skills and although I was figuring on acting as a career I was never the type to be willingly up front and centre. Being a writer seemed a good way to be creative and still not have to “perform” in front of a crowd. I could sit in the background and take the focus off me. Writing is the perfect career, I reckon, for the extroverted introvert. You get to show off and still retain your privacy.

The point of no return came when I was seventeen. Virgin were no longer doing The New Adventures. My submission was returned unread with a note that said they could not pursue the series any longer due to licensing problems with the Dr Who brand. But they were about to start their own line of SF novels, so, ya know, feel free to submit for that. Took me about a year, I reckon to write the 80k novel, THE STARS OF TOMORRROW, first in a planned trilogy that really borrowed far too heavily from Babylon 5 (with some Star Trek style temporal anomalies thrown in for good measure). But that novel earned me my first positive rejection letter. My first rejection letter ever. It was a form with ticks and comments, but what it told me was this:

I had the voice of a published author.
I could create coherent characters.
My plotting was logical and consistent.


I borrowed far too heavily from established themes and ideas (ie, Straczynski coulda probably sued me for plagiarism)
I relied too much on coincidence to move the story and characters forward.

As far as rejections letters go, it was beautiful. That they didn’t hate it was good enough for me. I figured, I’m young, I got time to get better. I also never told ‘em my age. When I first started submitting, I never did that, because I didn’t want anyone to go easy on me. The writing, I knew even then, had to speak for itself.

So, yeah, that letter was my tipping point. If it hadn’t been for that letter I might not have kept going. Had my first letter been like one I later received, my manuscript sent return postage covered in angry crayon scrawls with a wee note at the bottom of the title page saying, “As you can see, my kids didn’t like it either” or the one that said, “Your work reminds me a little of Ernie Wise and that little play what he wrote” I probably wouldn’t have kept fighting to improve my work and to grow as a writer.

That was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer, when I was seventeen. When I realised that it was possible to make what seemed like a daydream become something real if I just put in the hard work and paid attention to constructive criticism (and only later would I learn to ignore the mean spirited stuff). And if I could do that, then maybe I really could achieve the dream of indoor work with no heavy lifting.


Scott D. Parker said...

As a kid, I, too, was always creating narratives, mainly for my Star Wars figures. I remember sixth grade having to write a story for English class. This was 1980-81 so Empire Strikes Back was still primary in my mind. It was also the year I had my first crush. So, blatantly ripping off Lucas's story, I wrote about me, the space pirate, saving Princess Angela from the vile clutches of whomever. I still have that story somewhere. I also still have my notes about my planned fantasy story (probably 1982) complete with the map of the magical land. All derivative but still, the spark of creativity was there.

When it came time to write my first book, it was mainly b/c a writer friend of mine asked if I'd read his chapters. Sure, if you read mine. I got a bunch of rejection letters but, happily for me, a majority of them were actually personal and complimentary. That kept me going while I started then stopped writing my second story. My first two novels also won prizes, another factor to keep one's writing juices flowing.

Why do I want to be a writer? I agree that no heavy lifting is a plus. This despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoy the mind-cleansing effects of manual labor. But I'm a creative person. I'm always making up stories, if even for my son's various animals. I've given them voices and character. Building fictional things is just flat-out fun!

Another aspect I can't discount is the ability of my words to touch people. In 2003, when NBC News reporter David Bloom died in Iraq, it hit me hard and I wrote about it. The Houston Chronicle published it and I received letters from readers who thanked me for writing what they were feeling, too. The power of words and ideas and characters to touch people is a strong draw.

Steve Weddle said...

Russel, I've read your stuff and I'm not sure why that editor would have given it to his/her children.

Thanks for the insight. I heard an interview with you in which you talked about coming to crime fiction via sci-fi and how those two worlds aren't too different. Great points there, too.

Jay Stringer said...

Great stories about the rejections. Its amazing how some people think its okay to treat people that way.

Here's to having ace agents, eh?

I remember thiking i might submit to that Who imprint. Except i had no ideas, or work ethic, or caffeine.

Hmmm a music video? You've raised the stakes. Now i need to work Westerberg into a post.