Monday, May 9, 2016

The Spark (or How I Got Here)

My 12th novel, See Also Deception (Seventh Street Books), will be published tomorrow (May 10, 2016). This is the second Marjorie Trumaine Mystery featuring my freelance indexer amateur sleuth. What a fast, strange, wonderfully interesting trip it has been.

To be honest, for a long time, my goal was just to publish one novel with a major publisher.  I became really serious about that effort in the early 1990s, after writing a string of short stories, getting close to publication, and finding a little success in the small press.  Along the way, a rejection slip would come along with some encouraging hand-written words:  “Close, keep trying.”  Or “This was a really good story but I just bought one that is similar.”  Those were sparks that fed the flame, that made the walk to the mailbox a little easier, especially when I retrieved a brown envelope that wore the stamps I had put on it so it would come back to me.  Those were the days before email, when there was a cost to sending out stories, and when every penny counted as Rose and I struggled along early in our marriage.  There were sacrifices, life-changing decisions made during this time, and every time I was about to throw in the towel, another spark would come along to prevent it.  An agent was interested in seeing my work, or another hand-written rejection slip found its way to the mailbox. 

I found joy in writing.  My fingers longed to touch the typewriter keys (and then a keyboard) like a musician longs to strum the strings of a guitar.  Magic happened.  And the rejection slips kept coming in.  Year after year.  I scrubbed toilets, worked at whatever job I could, to help keep a roof over our head.  Rose worked, too, every day, without complaint.  At lunch I would steal away and write down ideas, write snippets of stories, and then I would go home, eat dinner, and make a beeline to my desk.  I was obsessed and determined.   But you know what?  It wasn’t about the money or the fame that people perceive that writers have.  It was about the art of storytelling.  I was trying to figure how to do it.  And instead of going to college and getting an MFA, I read a lot and I wrote a lot.  It seemed the best way for me to learn. 

Somehow, we managed to scrape up the money for me to go to conferences or workshops, and I began to meet other writers.  I wrote a mystery novel, and I sent that novel into the Malice Domestic Best Traditional Mystery contest sponsored by St. Martin’s, and headed up by the legendary editor, Ruth Cavin.  This was in 1994 or 1995.  I didn’t win, but I was a finalist.  Another spark.  That novel, that close call, garnered me an agent.  A real New York literary agent.  I was on my way. Except, I wasn’t.  The agent sent the book around while I wrote another.  He wasn’t real thrilled with the second, hadn’t sold the first one, and we parted ways a few years later.  It was about this time that I began to learn to index.  That took a lot of my time, especially when I saw that I liked indexing books, and saw a way to make a living at it.  I still read novels and wrote, but not at the pace I had been. 

The fire inside still burned, and eventually, I wrote a short story that I was asked to write.  “Can you write a modern-day mystery story featuring a Texas Ranger character?”  Of course, I could.  I wrote the story, sent it in, and it was published in a Western anthology published by Berkley, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg (how many writers got their start from this dynamic duo?  A ton!).  It was my first professional sale and publication as a writer.  That was in 2004.  Fourteen years after I gotten “serious” about being a writer.  To my shock and amazement, that story, “The Promotion” went on to win the WWA (Western Writers of America) Spur award. I had written a mystery, not a Western.  But I was on my way.  I met another agent, and she took me on in 2005.   She began to send out my work.  And nothing happened.  More rejections.  I kept writing, indexing, and gathering sparks.  I wrote another short story.  “See Also Murder.”  It was a finalist for the SMFS (Short Mystery Fiction Society) Derringer Award.  It was Marjorie’s debut, and I was encouraged to write a proposal for a novel and series.  My agent sent it out.  Nothing.  Three years later, I got the call every writer dreams of.  “I got an offer for your novel.”  It was for The Rattlesnake Season.  A paperback Western for Berkley.  I said yes and in 2008 and the novel was published in 2009.  Nineteen years after I had started.   The first Marjorie book, See Also Murder, sold in 2014, ten years after the short story was first published. 

Why do I tell you this now?  Eight years later when I am publishing my twelfth novel?  Because a pursuing a dream is a journey, that’s why.  It takes time.   If it had been about the money,  I would have quit a long time ago.  I don’t think the need for money or fame can sustain the desire to create, to write, or make art, or play music, or whatever it is one needs to do to be an artist.  Writing is an addiction, a need, and completes me in ways that I can’t even begin to describe.  The sacrifices of time, of not spending enough time with friends and family has been huge.  I’ve missed a lot of things, making up my “little stories” as somebody once said about what I do in a not so nice way.  And I have regrets, but honestly I wouldn’t change a thing.  Not that I could.  Being a writer is my place in the world, and I know how lucky I am to have found that.

A couple of other things.  During this time, the publishing industry has gone through some major, dramatic changes.  Most of the publishers who rejected me early on, and even recently (yes, I still get rejections) no longer exist.  Books are delivered in a myriad of ways now that I could not imagine in 1990.  My work is pirated on a daily basis, and the money is hardly what most people think it is.  This is not Hollywood, it’s reality.  I’m a working writer who could STILL not survive without working at another job.  Which happens to be indexing, and that world is just as precarious and uncertain as the writing world.  Two parts still make a wonderful whole for me. I spend as many hours at my desk as I ever have.  Probably more.  I work more, not less, to survive. 

And that takes me to my final point, about why I really wrote this essay.  I couldn’t have done any of this alone.  At every stumble, at every bad turn, Rose, my wife of thirty-two years, has been there for me, offering advice, comfort, and a swift kick in the pants when I needed it the most.  She has been my toughest critic and my greatest cheerleader.  Rose has given me more support and encouragement than I have ever had from any one person in my life. She has believed in my storytelling ability from the start.  When I said I wanted to be writer, that that would make me happy in my life, she said, “So be a writer.” And she meant it.  Granted, there are times when I don’t think she knew what she was getting herself into, but she’s never wavered.  She sees the all of the rejection slips, the not so nice reviews, the five dollar royalty checks, and urges me on.  It’s not about the money for her, either.  It’s about the life we’ve built, about the possibility of the future, of what’s next, just around the corner.  Rose has not only been my first reader, but my ideal reader.  I write for her as much as I do for myself, and all I can say is thank you, and keep on writing.

And I say thank you to my agent who has stuck with me since 2005, all of the editors and production teams I have worked with, reviewers (who have gave me good and bad reviews), fellow writers, and most importantly, the readers who have offered me the spark when I needed it the most.  You all have changed my life.   Success isn’t money or fame to me.  It’s about being the best writer I can be.  It’s about persistence and determination and love.  Success is about loving what you do so much that you can’t quit, and loving all of those who encourage you on, one step at a time.    So, thank you, again.  All of you.  I hope you like the new book.


SaraMuse said...

I really enjoyed this essay. Thank you so much for sharing your struggles and your triumphs. I've been writing for about 15 years, but only got serious about it when I had a kid and became a stay-at-home mom and realized that I had to follow my dreams if I ever wanted to encourage my son to do the same. I recently completed my fifth novel and am shopping it this summer. I don't think I could do it without the support of my husband, who has been my biggest supporter. I hope to enjoy publishing success, but I know that if it wasn't for the love of writing, the need to write, I'd never have written the first page. Keep up the great work!

Jennie L. Brown said...

Jennie L.

When a writer discovers another writer whose work captivates, it is pure pleasure. I discovered your Marjorie Trumaine series. I hope there is a third book planned or begun. It is hard for a writer to write first person in another gender and be believable, but you pulled it off. It's all about "voice," and Marjorie's is authentic. I grew up in South Dakota and Wyoming. I know wind and isolation, and the stoicism of ranchers and farmers. In that harsh environment, self- sufficiency is key. People cannot afford to grieve overlong or overloud. Your accuracy is commendable; you narrative as good as it gets. Thanks for two great books.

Larry Sweazy said...


Thanks for your comments. Yes, there will be another Marjorie Turmaine book. I am writing it now. I'm really happy to know that you enjoyed the first two books, and found Marjorie's voice believable. It is a complement that I treasure. All my best, Larry