Posted by Universal Shift
After the excitement from “The Saga of Shamus” died down I took a step back and decided to work on my craft. Learn how to smith the words better. To accomplish this, I started writing short stories like a mad man. This was a relatively new field for me. Until then I had mostly written plays and novellas. I had just moved to Albuquerque and me and my friend Brandon would spend our weekend mornings writing. And believe me, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I churned out at least one short story a week for a weeks on end. Most of these stories were garbage and will never see the light of day. I collected my favorites and self-published a collection called “Twisted Yarns.” I know what you’re thinking. Why would I self-publish again? What would possess me to want to undertake that exercise in humility again? To be honest, I was getting discouraged. Because even though I was churning out garbage short stories at a record pace, I couldn’t find anyone to publish them. Most of the stories I wrote were too long for the word counts of these publications. Flash fiction was really big at the time and everyone thought that if you couldn’t tell a story in under 1000 words, it wasn’t really a story. I don’t write 1000 word short stories. Hell, I don’t even write 3500 word short stories. My short stories start at 7500 words and usually top out somewhere around 10k. And the few places that did accept lengthy stories gave me nothing but encouraging rejections. If you’re a writer, you know the kind.
“Great story, but not what we’re looking for right now.”
“Really enjoyed the story, but doesn’t fit our issue. What else do you have?”
And so on and so forth. Over and over again. One rejection after another in a constant flow of bad news. After a while the ego takes a hit. After a while you start asking yourself questions and doubting yourself and your talent.
One of the stories to come out of this frenzy of writing was the original short story version of, “The Ruined Man.” The story actually followed the events of the upcoming book 2. I sent a copy to my old creative writing professor and he got back to me the same day with, “Turn this into a book! It NEEDS to be a book!” So that’s what I set out to do.
Turning a short story into a full-length novel is no easy feat. I’ve heard it said they are two separate modes of writing. A short story is like a passionate kiss from a stranger. It is fast, unexpected and leaves you breathless and wanting more. Whereas a novel is like a love affair. It’s slow, develops over time and is chock full of emotional highs and lows. So the trick was how to turn a passionate kiss into a love affair. I decided to start at the beginning, like all good love affairs. I told the story of how Victor Wolf became the Ruined Man—a story that ended up beginning 15 years in the past. The story, which ended up being book one, “The Ruined Man,” flowed out of me as if Wolf was telling it to me over afternoon coffee. Before I knew it, I had completed the Purple Gates story and had to move on to the second half which covered the events in the short story. Turning that into a love affair was difficult and took years. Literally years. The few query letters I did send out about The Ruined Man were met with rejection (surprise, surprise). Even after the discouragement settled in and I quit writing, I would still go back to Wolf and tinker around with the novel. It soon became a monster. A monster that I loved like a child. A beast I wanted to protect from the slings and arrows of all the nasty assholes rejecting my work and chipping away at my self-esteem. So I kept the book locked away in the fortress of my hard drive like the electronic manifestation of the Man in the Iron Mask.
Eventually, I quit looking at it altogether. Because I had finally had enough. Enough rejection. Enough criticism. Enough ridicule. Enough hearing loved ones talk about how I needed to “find a real job” and leave this writing thing behind. Those of you who know me know how huge this decision would be for me. All I ever wanted was to be a storyteller. Period. From the time my imagination started imagining I was making up stories. There is nothing I love to do more than get lost in my imagination and find a story there to share with others. I had spent years of my life not listening to all the naysayers. My high school teachers begged me not to be a writer. My college professors begged me not to be a writer. My parents REALLY begged me not to be a writer.
“There’s no money in it.”
“You’ll be poor your whole life!”
“Nobody respects writers! They are slackers and miscreants!”
I ignored them all and pursued my dream only to find out they were right. As I said in my last blog, I was one voice in a cacophony of thousands trying to get heard. Few people listened. Fewer cared. Everybody wants to be a writer but nobody wants to read. I was discouraged, disgusted and frustrated and I was getting real tired of rejection. So I decided to leave it behind and get a job in IT. There is nothing more soul-crushing than giving up on your dreams. Very little else will take the light from your eyes and the life from your step like losing a piece of who you are. But I had to. I couldn’t take the pain any more. I couldn’t take the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. I couldn’t take the smoldering disappointment I felt radiating from everyone around me. I had been defeated. So I stepped back and “gave it to God.”
I felt it leave in that moment—the fire I had kept stoked for years just didn’t die, it was snuffed out. As my imagination dimmed, a sharp pang stabbed my heart. It felt exactly like breaking up with someone. The loss was immense.
Franz Kafka said a non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. Franz Kafka knew something about it because I learned the truth in that statement pretty quickly. My whole life I used writing to process the world around me. The stories, poems, plays and essays I’d written were fueled by a myriad of emotions. But that was gone now. I didn’t have an outlet for creative expression. Those were dark days.
During the summer of 2016 I came across Michelkin Publishing’s call for submissions. They were an indie house out of New Mexico and they were seeking local writers with books about New Mexico. Bonus points for magical realism. My thoughts immediately went to The Ruined Man, but I quickly pushed it back. I had quit writing. I didn’t want any more rejection. I gave it to God and He decided to keep it. All my passion for writing was gone. But I kept going back to it for days. Finally I relented.
“It’s no big deal,” I convinced myself. “You haven’t gotten a rejection in years, you can handle at least one. It doesn’t even matter. It’s not like you’re a writer anymore, anyway. Accepted or rejected, it’s all the same now. Besides, it’ll be rejected for sure. No doubt.”
So I went to Michelkin’s site and filled out the submission form and included a summary of my monstrous word-baby. I clicked send and was hit with a brief spike of excitement that was quickly dulled over. Then I waited. Waited for the rejection I was sure would come.
“Dear Mr. DeGray,
Thank you for your submission but we can’t find room for you right now.
Every publisher or agent ever”
The morning I got the email from Michelkin’s publishing department that’s what I expected it to read. But that’s not what it said. They actually said they liked the summary and wanted to see the first 50 pages. I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking as I dove into the electronic dungeon of my hard drive. My heart pumped wildly as I opened the key and let my Monster in the Iron Mask see light for the first time in ages. I spit-shined the manuscript and sent them what they asked for. Then I waited again.
Months later I got another email. Again, I expected this to be the one where they thanked me for my time but they had decided to pass. Again, not what happened. They felt the first 50 were solid and wanted to see the whole manuscript. I almost cried. No joke. I spent the weekend polishing up my beloved brain-child and sent it off to them. And then I waited.
By this time I was getting anxious. It was December now and I hadn’t heard a thing from them since the end of September. I was convinced they hated it and hadn’t gotten around to sending me the rejection yet. I tried not to care, but the fire had been sparked inside me again. It burned with a tiny flame. Like a tea light–a miniature flicker of light in a sea of dark hopelessness. It was fragile and I knew that this rejection would snuff it out for good. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the cosmic plan behind it, the killing blow that would ensure I would never get back up. And then it came.
December 10, 2016 I was at my niece’s birthday party when I got an email from Michelkin Publishing. My throat instantly dried and I was hit with a rush of excitement. I took three deep breaths and returned to the party. Later, after I had gotten home, I paced around for at least an hour terrified to open the email. Finally, I steeled my resolve and read the email.
They said they’d be happy to publish my manuscript. In two books. I cried. No joke. And that tiny flame suddenly grew into a blazing beacon.
And now, six months later, my first published novel is actually out. It feels great, I can’t lie. It’s blissful to no longer be a monster courting insanity. All dreams are worth living. That’s what I took away from this adventure in publishing. No matter who you are, no matter what your secret dream is—live it. Don’t let the wet blanket of hopelessness put out your fire. Don’t let the criticism and disapproval of others guide the direction you take. It is YOUR life, after all. You are the one who has to live it, so live it well.