My First Sale (or, Flattery Will Get You Everywhere!)

As I revel in the ongoing success of my recently published book, I can’t help but think back to the first time I sold a piece of writing for publication. Actually got money for words that flow automatically from my brain through my fingers onto a page whether I want them to or not. The first time I realized I actually had something going for that “writer thing” I’d always wanted to experience.

I’ve been a writer since I was 11 years old. Okay, since I was two, but at age 11, I actually wrote something that didn’t have to be burned. I still have that poem; I’m not too embarrassed to show it to people, because it showed something–I’m not sure what–but it is very special to me.

Anyway, I wrote whenever and whatever I could. Poetry, plays, prose, book reports… If I could get a piece of paper and put words on it, I was a happy camper. I even wrote extra credit book reports and essays tests, just to be able to express myself on paper.

And I was an artiste (to be said with a highly nasal tone in the voice, indicating snobbery and a hoi polloi attitude). I was never going to make money with my talent, my art; I was going to give it free to the world, because I had something important to say.

Writing was also a way to diffuse some of the misery and loneliness of a chaotic Air Force Base childhood and outcast teenage life. I never had to show my real self to people, because I was able to keep all the negative emotions in check by writing about them. After all, I was a good soldier. When I started going to a “normal” (i.e., non-military) school, I found military bases are quite cocooned and secure from the real world. Again, writing helped me endure the loneliness and anguish of being the new fat kid (even after five years, I was the “new fat kid”).

I took writing classes in high school and college, survived deplorably untalented teachers, including one who, jealous because his writing career had never taken flight, shot down every student who showed any promise or stick-to-itiveness. Many of those impressionable teenagers never did get over the trauma of his words; they have never written again, and that is a great loss. But I was stubborn — no one, especially not a broken-down English teacher in a San Francisco public school, or a college professor whose idea of a nifty poem was one that focused exclusively on his daughter’s toilet training (three pages worth!), was going to tell me I couldn’t do it. I knew I could. I knew I was good. I just had to convince someone else I was good, that’s all.

I sent my first poem to a literary magazine as part of a college course assignment. It was a good poem, I thought; unfortunately, the editor didn’t agree. However, while the other members of the class got form rejections, photocopied and stamped with a name, I got a handwritten (not typed) note of about two pages, telling me exactly what was wrong with the poem. And, telling me I had real talent and should persevere. I was hooked.

Not only am I an artiste, I am an exhibitionist. I want to be the center of attention. What better way to have people notice you than to get yourself published? I was game.

But I was also lazy. And busy–with graduation, marriage, moving, career, and then, children. I never got around to sending any more poetry out, although I did rework the one that started the whole thing.

Then I spent three years cooped up in a small house with two very small children. My brain began to melt. It was the consistency of the mush I fed the baby. I knew I had to do something. Again, I turned to writing. And this time, I plugged into a writer’s group. Even if I never sold a piece, I was surrounded by authors! My idols.

But I did get marketing ideas. And, wonder of wonders (because I’m still lazy), I began sending poetry out. And I began receiving acceptances! No money, but who needs money when your work is being read and appreciated by discriminating audiences everywhere (well, at least in several small towns, anyway)? Besides, I am an artiste, remember?

Then one day, Fate walked in the door of the writer’s club and whacked me upside the head. Fate in the round form of Jon Herron, Publisher of Midnight Zoo, a magazine of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, my favorite reading material. He gave an interesting talk, and I stuck around afterwards to talk to him, which was slightly out of character for me; much as I like being in the spotlight, I’d rather do it vicariously through my writing — never in person. But I stuck my neck out and introduced myself. And wangled an invitation to submit directly to the head man himself. As every writer knows: when you’re given an in, grab it and run for the touchdown!!

So I sent him a short story and a poem, coincidentally the one rejected by the literary magazine and reworked according to their two pages of suggestions.

The story was sent back–rightfully, I should add. In retrospect, I’m kind of sorry I used my real name on it, because now everyone knows how abysmally bad I was then. But the poem was accepted. With enthusiasm. Wow. Excitement. I was a professional–because along with my contributor copy was a check for $6.00. Masses of money to a poor poet.

And that was that. I thought. Some months later, I got a call from Mr. Herron. He explained the magazine was looking “for a few good men (or women),” writers of exceptional talent and ability, to work on the staff of Midnight Zoo. Hey, I was hooked after “exceptional talent.” I said yes.

Two years later, I became the Managing Editor, after going through Staff Editor and Senior Fiction Editor. And a funny thing happened – in the course of reading other beginning, hopeful (and sometimes very talentless) writers, my own writing began to improve. As did my energy – I sent more items out for consideration.

I got personalized rejections from some of the big name mags in the genre. The more time I spent writing and editing, the more opportunities I had to write and edit for others. I got to hang around with writers. And, most importantly, I was in the position to give another struggling writer the chance I was given: the chance to really see what a piece of writing is all about–its potential and possibilities. If the editor (who’s name is long since forgotten, but who’s generosity of spirit makes him a candidate for sainthood in Writer’s and Editor’s Heaven) hadn’t taken the time (and I know what a precious commodity time is to magazine editors) to write me an encouraging note as he ripped my poetry to shreds, I might never have gotten up the courage to submit to other publications. And I would never have introduced myself to Jon. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today–and I can’t imagine any other place I’d like to be.

While my day job isn’t the writing career I envisioned (I used to wear a shirt proudly proclaiming me a “Pulitzer Prize Winner in Training,” and my journalism career at the Chicago Tribune is only a distant dream I once had, I do write almost every day. I get to tell stories about other people and write blog entries, Facebook posts, tweets, and articles. I am recognized as a writer, which is all I ever wanted to be.

Life is good.