Earlier this week I found out my story “Fantastic Atlas” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Ascent, the journal where it appeared back in March of this year.
Of course, it is just a nomination. I haven’t actually won anything yet. And as John Fox points out in a pretty divisive blog post, a lot of people get these nominations every year. That’s because every small literary magazine is eligible to submit up to six pieces they published during the previous calendar year. There is, therefore, a school of thought that says the nomination itself is pretty meaningless unless it’s followed by a win, or at least a Special Mention, and that boasting about it is unseemly.
My take: Nah.
Nobody says we shouldn’t brag about getting our stories published. In fact, that’s just good self-promotion, and it’s pretty much required these days (hell, self-promotion is the reason I wrote this post in the first place). So why wouldn’t I be proud of it when an editor tells me that he thinks my story was one of the best things his journal published this year?
It’s a small bit of recognition, true, but it’s also very gratifying, and nearly makes up for the whole Pulitzer snub. Thanks for enjoying the book, Shelf Unbound, and for telling your readers that you did.
So. Tomorrow’s it, then. Publication day for my first novel, How I’m Spending My Afterlife. The realization of a dream I’ve kept alive at some level for nearly my entire adult life. It’s been three and a half years since I typed out the first page of the first draft, and to finally get here after all that time is exciting and terrifying all at once.
And in that time, here are three things I’ve learned:
I have a lot of very supportive people in my life, and am lucky for that.
I started writing How I’m Spending My Afterlife in May of 2014, but I’d had the plot and characters in my head for at least seven or eight years before that. Maybe even longer.
There were a few reasons for that long delay in turning the idea into a book (I talk about some of them in my post about being a late bloomer), but one of them was particularly pointless and stupid: I didn’t know in advance how the story was going to end. And because I had never seriously tried to write a novel before and had no idea of what I was getting into, I was terrified of investing years of time and toil into a project I might not be able to finish.
There’s a whole cottage industry of advising neophyte authors on how best to tame the beast that is the writing process, but there’s no consensus on what that best way actually is. (Which makes sense, I guess: if there were a clear path, then there’d be no market or need for all those books and seminars.) Outline or no outline? Should you write character backstory that will never be read by anyone by you, or is that a waste of time? Write each chapter in order, or skip around and fill in the blanks later?
Most of the advice I was reading at the time urged the use of an outline. That made sense to me. Even then I was self-aware enough to understand how my mind works, and how easily I could get distracted and find myself writing down tangents and blind alleys until I’d forgotten the story I was trying to tell.
It also made sense to me to write with a specific destination in mind: in other words, to know the ending I was working to reach, the narrative resolution I was trying to achieve. So I refused to start until I knew where I wanted to end up.
This was a huge mistake that cost me years.
I remember countless phone conversations with my best friend during these years, trying to hash out with him what the end of this story should look like. He tried his best, but ultimately was no help at all because we have different ideas of what a satisfying resolution should look like: he kept suggesting Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines twist endings, and I kept shooting them down, terribly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t think of anything better.
It was maddening. I had a solid setup. I had strong characters. I had a story arc. I just didn’t have an ending.
But then I realized that if I had strong characters, I had all I needed right there. Not because having that means you don’t need an ending, but because strong characters would tell me what the ending was. All I had to do was start writing. When the time came to wrap things up, they’d let me know.
And it actually worked. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft before I figured out how the book would end, how it had to end; after I circulated a draft among some trusted friends of mine, I used their feedback to make the ending better.
I just let the characters live their lives and tell their story. I trusted them and never tried to make them do things they wouldn’t do. That’s all there was to it.
Of course, if you don’t have solid characters with strong personalities and specific desires and goals, this won’t work. The up-front effort goes into building those characters instead of a detailed outline. And let’s be clear, that does take a lot of up-front effort. But strong characters always make for the best fiction anyway, so it’s worth it.
I guess the point of this post is that if you want to write, don’t worry about conforming to someone else’s idea of process. I listened to the wrong people back in the day, and it cost me a metric shit-ton of time. I should have just trusted my instincts more (this is actually the piece of advice I would give to most people, in most contexts). I’d be a lot farther along in my fiction-writing career if I had.
I’m well into a draft for novel number two now, and I’m taking this approach a step further: I do have an ending in mind, but I’m not completely sure how I’m going to get there. The story arc is hazy. Plot points are un-plotted. It’s an even bigger leap of faith this time because I can’t give an elevator pitch about what I’m working on; it’s possible there’s not even a novel in what I’m doing. But I do have strong characters, just like last time, and I am confident they’ll show me the way again. So check back in 2019 to see how it worked out.
It’s something I always wanted to do, at least going back to when I was nine or ten. That summer, I got it in my head to write a story, a Friday the 13th-style slasher story about a maniac named Clay who killed off summer campers (modeled on kids I knew from Roper Day Camp in suburban Detroit) until meeting his own violent end, which I think was electrocution-based.
I had fun writing it, but writing fiction didn’t stick then. I put it aside until I was in high school, working in a library and reading books like Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (whose short fiction has always, in my opinion, surpassed his novels) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye. These books inspired me to try again; I can do this too, I thought.
So I wrote. I wrote through my senior year of high school, my college years, my first couple years in the Coast Guard (that’s when I also started trying to write screenplays, having seen Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross just before I graduated college). What I didn’t do is take a single creative writing class. I don’t say that to brag, because I still don’t know if that was the right decision or not. Looking back, I think a class might have helped, but at the time I didn’t think writing was a talent you could develop in a classroom setting. I am pretty sure I was wrong about that, honestly.
The thing is, I hated everything I wrote. Everything. What seemed brilliant in the moment read like pretentious auto-fellation the next day. Every line of fiction I wrote ended up mortifying me.
But I good enough at writing to write other things. Ad copy. Record reviews. Software manuals. Magazine articles. Scripts. A three-hundred-page dissertation on land use policy in environmentally-sensitive landscapes (yeah, don’t bother with that one). Everything but fiction.
I had no style. And I had no idea how to develop any style. I began to accept that I would never write novels or publish short story collections.
But it was more than that, though, and when I was in a particularly reflective mood I could articulate the real reason I wasn’t writing fiction: I didn’t have anything worth saying.
I’ve always viewed successful fiction, the best fiction, the kind of fiction that endures, as having the ability to show us truths about ourselves and the world around us that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And certainly I had stories I could tell, life experiences that lent themselves to narrative. I’m doing that right now, in fact, with my second novel, which is based on my experiences in the US Coast Guard in the mid-1990s. I recognized a long time ago that I had the makings for a novel in my experiences during those four years of my life. But I had no idea what any of it meant, or more to the point, what any of it could or should or would mean to anyone else.
I’ve been carrying those experiences around with me for more than twenty years now; it took me most of that time to really understand what they meant, what they revealed to me about the world, about other people, about myself. And it took me even longer to decide that I was able to express that understanding through fiction, through stories, through my own creative process. Hell, I didn’t get there until after I turned 40.
So I started to read writing books, on technique, approach, mindset, whatever. Most of them didn’t help. Then finally, one of them did: David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist. I focused on a few specific technical suggestions and applied them to the first eight pages of an idea I’d had in my head for a few years. Then I put those pages in a drawer and forgot about them for a few more years. Then I found them, discovered to my surprise that they weren’t so bad, and decided to finish the book, even though I didn’t know how it was going to end. The result was How I’m Spending My Afterlife, which took me two years and change to write and which will finally see the light of day in October.
Understand that I’m not hoping to justify my late start in this post. For one thing, I don’t need anyone’s permission for or approval of the path my life has taken to this point. But more important, I don’t think that starting late requires justification.
I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t try to measure your own progress in life against anyone else’s. That’s certainly sound advice but is also nearly impossible to put into practice. It’s just human nature to look at someone else, someone who has achieved the success and status that you crave for yourself, and wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you’re lagging so far behind.
A lot of writers who have a career trajectory I hope to achieve are younger than me, sometimes a lot younger. It’s dispiriting sometimes. I sometimes feel like I could have already made it big by now, or at least respectably, if only I’d started sooner.
But would I have? If I wasn’t ready to write, I wasn’t ready to write. Yes, starting late was almost certainly a disadvantage from the perspective of building a real career out of writing fiction, assuming that’s even possible to do anymore. But it just as easily may have been the only way for me to do this at all. If I’d started too soon, before I was confident that I had anything to say, what would that have looked like? I mean, I remember some of the novels I planned to write, back when I was in college and before I knew the first goddamn thing about anything. They were formless, plot-driven, thinly-conceived. If I’d written those under my own name, I’d be calling myself Steve Bennett by now.
I think I did myself a big favor, honestly. I may have lost 20 years of back catalog, but I think the odds are good that I’m much more likely to remain proud of my work for years to come.