When I was fifteen, my parents dragged me to a book release party. Not that I knew it was a book release party; I was, like every fifteen-year-old kid, self-centered to the point that I wore my colon as a hat. It was at the Goldsteins’ house, so I assumed it was another party celebrating the fact that brave Mrs. Goldstein had survived yet another round of brain surgery.
But no. Mrs. Goldstein – a clear-eyed woman who walked with the help of a cane – pressed a hardcover book into my hand.
“I wrote this,” she told me. “About my experiences, relearning how to walk and talk and write. It’s a memoir.” And though I’d read so many stories that I had ink permanently dotted on my nose from sticking it in books, it had never occurred to me that actual people wrote them. Authors were Gods who lived in little editorial heavens, flinging down books from clouds up high.
But Mrs. Goldstein had written a book. And taken it to the publishers in New York. And gotten it published. She told me all about how she wrote it, how you had to send it in a manila envelope to people, the letters of rejection you’d get, and slowly I came to understand that books – books! – were written by people like you and me.
When I was fifteen, I vowed to publish a novel.
When I was nineteen, I wrote my first novel: “Schemer and the Magician.” It was about a nerdy college kid (basically me) and a wiseass college kid (also basically me) who got kidnapped by aliens and sucked into a galactic war OF INCONCIEVABLE CONSEQUENCES.
…It wasn’t very good.
I sent it to two agents, who wisely never responded.
When I was twenty-three, I wrote my second novel: “A Cup of Sirusian Coffee.” It was a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-style riff on the afterlife, where for all eternity you were forced to do whatever you did in life. Were you a plumber? Look forward to spending the next five Pleistocene epochs fixing pipes.
I wrote the first three chapters, handed them around to my college buddies, who thought it was hysterical. So every day I cranked out another chapter, handing out printed manuscripts to a small group of fans who demanded to know what happened next, until eventually I snowballed a slim plot into a musical Ragnarok that shut the universe down.
This one I sent out to three agents, two of whom dutifully informed me that I was not quite as clever as I thought.
When I was thirty, I wrote my third novel: “The Autonomist Agenda, Part I.” Screw my own muse, I thought: this one would be commercial. So I wrote the first book in a huge and complex fantasy series, complete with smoldering relationships guaranteed to appeal to the ‘shipper crowd, and prophecies that propelled a young boy on the inevitable journey to become a Big Damn Hero, and even a gay warrior because I was Just That Ahead Of The Curve.
(Not that it was revealed he was gay until Part II. I had Plans, you see. I’d sell all three books at once!)
I slipped a copy to my friend Catherynne Valente, who’d had some success at this writing gig. She read part of it, then took me out to a sad lunch at Bob Evans to break the news.
“I guess you could get this published somewhere,” she told me. “But is this really what you want your name on?”
I guess I didn’t.
But damn, I wanted my name on something.
When I was thirty-two, I wrote my fourth novel: “On The Losing Side Of The Dragon.” Sure, the knight eventually kills the dragon, but what about all those poor schmucks who get killed along the way?
I gave it to my wife. She informed me she liked how it ended, really liked it, but the beginning was tedious. She would never have gotten to the good stuff if she hadn’t been, you know, obligated to read my crap on account of our wedding vows consisting of the words “to love, honor, and beta-read.”
I locked myself in my room and cried all evening. Thirteen years of effort, and I had not managed to write one single novel that anyone wanted to read. I had not sold one story.
All I’d ever wanted to do was write novels, and I pretty much sucked at it.
When I was thirty-five, I wrote my fifth novel: “A Cup Of Sirusian Coffee.” Wrote the whole goddamned thing from scratch. It was a funny idea, and my college buddies still asked about it, so clearly I just needed to go back to the drawing board.
This was novel #5 – and that was the toughest one. See, Stephen King, my favorite Unca Stephen, had written five novels before he sold his first one. He’d famously wadded up Carrie and thrown it in the trash, and his wife had rescued it, put his ass back in the seat, told him to keep going. He did. Fame and fortune resulted.
That meant this was my lucky novel. This was the one I was guaranteed to publish. After all, how many novels did you have to write before you got good?
After sending the new manuscript far and wide, I heard back from a publisher two years later. They told me the opening paragraphs were “interesting” but then it “fell apart quickly… if the author could capture the style of those first paragraphs again, it might be worth it.”
But by then, I’d pretty much given up trying.
When I was thirty-eight, Catherynne Valente yelled at me. “Just send in the damn application,” she said.
“I’m not a good writer,” I told her. “The Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop is for serious writers. I’ve sold three stories in twenty years, for $15 total. I’m never going to get in.”
She smiled. “So send it in. Just to shut me up.”
I got accepted.
I got scourged.
I got to learn that over the last twenty years, I’d accreted all kinds of bad habits – lazy dialogue, flabby prose, a reliance on recreating stereotypes instead of actually writing about people I knew. Clarion taught me that I wasn’t a bad writer, I’d just been too overconfident in my raw abilities… and now that I had finally been forced to acknowledge all my weak spots, I could fix those and reinvent myself for the better.
Over the next three years, I sold fourteen stories, five of them at professional rates. For which I still thank Catherynne.
But I wasn’t quite ready to write a novel. Not yet.
When I was forty-one, I finally got the courage back to work on my sixth novel: a sweeping science-fiction epic called “The Upterlife.” I spent a year revising it, and – I shit you not – not two hours after I finished the final draft of that damn novel, Mary Robinette Kowal called me up to tell me that my novelette Sauerkraut Station had been nominated for the Nebula Award.
If that wasn’t a signal from God that I was ready to sell a damn novel, what was? I sent that manuscript to all the best agents, with a killer query, telling them by way, I’m up for a Nebula this year and I just happen to have this novel for you.
They all rejected it.
When I was forty-three, I wrote my seventh novel. It was Breaking Bad with magic, a desperate bureaucromancer turned to manufacturing enchanted drugs to save his burned daughter, and it was by far the best thing I’d ever written. I polished that sucker until it shined. It shined.
But I was two novels beyond Stephen King. I’d been struggling to get a novel published for twenty-four years now, clawing at the walls of the Word Mines, and I had no hope of anything but oh God I couldn’t stop and I realized that I wasn’t going to stop, that the breath in my body would run out before I stopped writing tales and who the hell cared if I got published or not I was locked in. I had to create. I had to.
And I sold it.
Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz. The story of Paul Tsabo, bureaucromancer, his daughter Aliyah, and the kinky videogamemancer Valentine DiGriz, who I’m pretty sure you’re gonna love. Published by Angry Robot books – the very publisher of whom I said to my wife, “If I could have any publisher take my first book, it’d be Angry Robot.”
Coming to bookstores on September 30th.
I don’t care what novel you’re on.
Do not give up.