I started with good intentions.
When I was in elementary and middle school, I wrote about the small things close to me and my life. I lived in a closed world and could not see outside that narrow horizon. Though it was child-writing, it was from the heart.
In high school I started to expand but turned down the wrong road. I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and wrote a short story about myself in a gang (I ran from a potential fistfight). I read Don’t Play Dead Before You Have To by Maia Wojciechowska and wrote a short story about myself on drugs. (This, at a time when I had not only never tried drugs and was scared of them, but my ambition in life was to be a Baptist minister). I read The Son of Someone Famous, by M.E. Kerr and wrote a short story with myself as the rich, good-looking son of a senator. (I had horn-rimmed glasses, acne, and my dad was a liquor salesman.)
I subscribed to Writer’s Digest at age 16 and from then on slid down a dangerous path. I’m embarrassed to admit that as an adult I once thought of suing Writer’s Digest for throwing me off track. But of course it’s a magazine that helped a lot of people. And no one ordered me to fall in love with the idea of getting big money and unending fame from writing.
In later high school, I got into junky commercial novels by Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers) and Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls) and puked up my own similar novel called The Hollywood People — about a place I’d never even visited and a lifestyle I had no knowledge of. Since I didn’t even understand what love was, there was no depth to the book. The characters were stars or climbing actors and singers who “clawed their way to the top,” gobbled drugs, were always on diets, and had pornographic-quality sex.
Looking back, I know I was fairly good at nonfiction for a young writer. I won a speech writing contest. I won 2nd place in a national editing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, the same contest which had not long before launched the career of Joyce Carol Oates.
I had my first magazine acceptance on my 16th birthday, a poem. That was a dangerous combination for my overly-fertile imagination and then-entitlement feeling. I published regional magazine articles and even a couple of major newspaper articles in college, including an article in the St. Louis Dispatch about my university’s Chancellor.
Fueled by Writer’s Digest, I began writing anything that was right for the market at that time. I wrote letters to famous authors, begging for encouragement and hoping to make a “connection.”
The apex of stupidity came when I set a major life goal: by age 35, have written best-sellers, be a rock star, and have my own TV variety show, The Charles Mallory Show. Did I act or sing? No. I think my head might have been clearer if I’d been smoking weed and drinking booze like the other kids.
I always expected to hit the motherlode on fiction. Nonfiction took work and research. Fiction just poured out like sparklers from my fingertips, created by my brain, and I could go anywhere. It was the same displacement of reality that caused me to be such an avid reader starting in early childhood.
I’ve always loved history and sci-fi. It’s like I want to be anywhere but the present.
The one good and true thing that happened somewhere in young adulthood was that I knew I wanted to write children’s books. Eventually I got wise enough to realize picture books weren’t for me and settled on middle-reader and young adult books. There was a seed in that high school, S.E. Hinton-copycat gang story, “The Tragedy of Anthony Mastona.”
Of course I went to fiction writing conferences, was part of writers’ groups, and made all those “right” moves. I wrote fiction for years. One acquaintance of mine whose journey was similar had just sold a book, I’d read in the Sunday newspaper, and in another near-fatal juxtaposition like my 16th birthday, I ran in her at Mass that very day. She told me it was a Western. This was confusing. She’d never been interested in that sort of thing. I asked her if she had any advice for me. She simply said, “Write to the market. That’s what I did.”
And that’s what I did, for a few years, trying to hit every slot any packager in the children’s book world had out there. Rejection after rejection. Then I thought I struck gold — a packager for Sweet Valley Kids, the rabbit-like spawn of Sweet Valley High, asked to see a proposal. I wrote the proposal. Then I wrote the whole book on spec. Then they rejected it and said, “A man just can’t write about middle-school girls.”
I should have hit myself over the head right then with a board and thought, “Sweet Valley Kids? WTF am I doing?”
My first commercial fiction success was when I wrote a story called “Dead Summer” for an anthology called Even More Bone-Chilling Tales of Fright, a four-times-removed sequel to a once-selling book. I got it because they asked Neal Shusterman, with whom I’d been email friends. He didn’t have time and referred me. The editor chewed the hell out of the story, gave me no control, and while I was happy to get paid $500, I barely recognized the published piece.
I was making money writing nonfiction for magazines in the 90s, starting with the plethora of then-widespread men’s fitness magazines. I’d published a couple of how-to nonfiction books. I’d ghostwritten a business book that was featured on ABC-TV’s 20/20.
But fiction had only meant years of disappointment. I had written 10 YA and middle-reader novels that I couldn’t sell. I’d ridden the optimistic waves of getting an agent–four times.
I didn’t need this Sweet Valley Bone-Chilling Tales of Crap. And fiction was a dead end.
So I quit writing fiction. For 10 years.
But the idea crawled back into my mind, like a tapeworm come to life after fattening itself for years.
I didn’t need to write nonfiction anymore, and didn’t even want to continue as a full-time writer. I had changed emotionally and had friends and did not want to sit at home by myself all day. Thus fiction had a chance to work its way back into my life while I held regular corporate jobs.
My first rule was: I don’t care if I sell a damn thing. I don’t care if it’s “in,” fits a genre, or is even considered well-written. I’m just going to write.
My second rule: No addiction to how-to-sell articles and no trolling writers’ groups/conferences for potential contacts. No looking for an agent right after I write the first chapter.
This time, it’s okay. It’s freeing. It’s authentic.
And I still have those wonderful letters from YA authors.