The Accidental Novelist
I’m sitting next to Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the wildly popular novel, FIGHT CLUB. His new novel is stacked neatly next to a cart that is loaded with dozens of copies of my first novel, THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK. We’re at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, and the rare book room on the pearl floor has every seat filled with attentive readers and aspiring writers of all ages.
Somehow, this isn’t Chuck’s author event. Somehow, it’s mine. He’s agreed to lead an interview and discussion—his way of supporting my foray into wilderness and harsh terrain that is the world of the debut novelist. I don’t have an audience, really. Not yet, but I’m trying. I don’t just suspect that most of the people are there to see Chuck—I absolutely know it’s true.
In the middle of the audience discussion portion of the event, a woman in her early twenties (by my estimation) asks a question about getting published. What’s the secret? Not the first version of that question, nor the last. Then she just flat out asks Chuck to read her work. She’s ignoring my presence. I’m just the debut guy. He gives her the polite answer, that everyone who gives him work, he just gives it to his agent, and the agent usually passes on the work. Eventually, he gently tells her to be a professional, but it doesn’t slow her down.
She finally turns to me and asks me what’s the secret to getting published. How did I get my seat at the front of the Powell’s event next to Chuck. I’m almost surprised that she finally realizes I exist up there, and I sheepishly give her the first answer that comes to mind.
“Luck,” I say. “You don’t want to hear my story. It sounds lucky, and it sort of is.”
It sounds like a bullshit answer, and it is, but eventually I figure out how to get across to her and the audience that it’s the right answer. Like any good essay question, you stumble around a little bit until you nail the point you were going for. Starting off with the luck thing is just me showing my work as I wrestle with the equation.
“Luck?” she repeats, pissed off. “That’s it? That’s your answer?”
So I tell her my story.
When I tell people how I got published, it sounds like a supermodel getting discovered in a shopping mall.
My wife enrolled in a master’s program for working adults at Lindenwood University. She went to school once per week for four hours, six to ten in the evening. One day, I just figured I’d check and see if Lindenwood had an MFA program. I certainly enjoyed writing, it was one of my favorite hobbies. I loved reading just as much. Felt like a great way to immerse myself in those two things and get a degree for my trouble.
Weeks later, I was leaving my job at four p.m. and driving two hours to get to campus when class started, right at six p.m. I had by far the longest drive of all the students. As the semesters passed and the relationships started to forge, my confidence rose. I could tell from the reaction and comments from my instructors and peers that maybe I wasn’t just a hobbyist at writing fiction. Maybe I was actually getting good.
Understand that I wasn’t a casual writer, and I really wasn’t a serious one. Casual means you do it on a whim, every now and again. Serious meant I had all these deadlines and goals and never missed a day. I was a consistent writer, but not an everyday writer. By that I mean I have written fiction consistently since the age of about ten years old, mostly because I enjoyed it. I threw a lot of it away when I was finished. I lost whole novels to computer crashes and didn’t even shrug because I knew they sucked.
I dreamed that one day I would publish a book and it would get made into a movie and I would be this all-star novelist. Dreams are good, and I don’t begrudge anyone letting big dreams and passions motivate them. I think the problem that I’m seeing in my Q&As and my discussion with writers is that they are allowing their big dreams to overwhelm their development as writers. They crave “getting published” and when you obsess with the results, the work suffers. You click “self publish” on that piece that isn’t quite ready. You want validation. You want an audience. You send out that story because you can’t tolerate another draft. You don’t throw away that first novel because it was so much work and you owe it to yourself to send it out there or take a break before you start another project.
When someone asks “How do I get published?” or any variation of it, the answer is so simple I know you’re not doing it—write a lot, until you get better, then write something good. Then you’ll get published.
It’s the write until you get better part that seems to be the problem. Everyone went and got in a big damn hurry.
I had the dreams, but I never really cared about getting published all that much. I turned in a story to my MFA workshop once, and I had sent it out to a little magazine, which accepted it. I actually pulled the story back because I wanted to see what kind of feedback I got. I wanted to see if I could make the story even better.
Eventually, I gave the class a little short story called “Love in Standard Definition.” It was about a high school kid who could regrow his organs and limbs and was obsessed with reality TV. He discovered love (or what he thought was love) by becoming a reality TV sensation, giving away his organs and limbs on a reality show. Sort of an “Extreme Makeover: Transplant Edition.”
The class liked the story, but not the execution. “Too much summary,” they said. “Intriguing, but needs more expansion on the ideas.” The consensus was, “you should try this as a novel.”
Weeks later, I announced to the class that I was 33,000 words into a novel-length project based on that story. At the same time, an independent publisher was starting up in St. Louis. They had a unique vision for what an indie press could be, and wanted to focus regionally.
I didn’t know they were starting up at the time, but a wonderfully supportive, kind and generous lady in my class did, and she was connected to the literary scene in St. Louis. She knew my work from class and got word to the startup, Blank Slate Press. “If you’re looking for local writing talent, here’s a name for you,” she told them. They contacted me directly and wanted me to fill out their challenging, fun, unique writer’s application. I couldn’t resist. I sent them a short story. They invited me to dinner, and I accepted the invitation.
They offered me a contract for my first novel. “It’s not even done,” I said. “Not even half of a rough draft.” They didn’t care.
Lots of people in the writing community recommended that I wait it out and not sign with them. You’ll have to believe me when I say it wasn’t a compulsion to be published that made me sign the contract, it was my confidence in their ability to help cultivate my idea into something greater than I could develop all by myself. I knew the story was cool, and I wanted help taking the best swing I could with the material, getting access to their editorial support and guidance early in the process. I signed the contract.
A year later, they were putting the finishing touches on THE SAMARITAN, my first attempt at being a debut novelist. They procured excellent blurbs and did a great job making it a regional success. The book eventually landed on Shelf Magazine’s top ten indie books of the year, and the USA Today ran that same list.
And that’s when the agents started calling.
Out of the dozen or so agents that contacted me, I joined forces with Kirby Kim at WME (now at Janklow and Nesbit). He was the only agent who thought enough of THE SAMARITAN to try and sell that story to a larger audience. He wanted to take it to the bigger houses.
By the time we had the rights to the book to shop around the manuscript again, I was done with a first draft of another book. I never stopped writing.
Weeks later, I was on conference calls with editors, and they had resistance to some story elements. I was told that no one is asking me to rewrite the book, but did I have any ideas to make it more accessible for a wider audience? “I don’t know about wider audience,” I said, “But here’s some ideas.” I described some new twists, a new character, and a whole new ending. There was silence on the line. “Well yeah, if you want to rewrite it, maybe try that,” an editor said.
It didn’t take long because I already had a lot of the work done. I was done with a draft of a new novel, so I wanted to stay busy and figured, “Why not see if I can make this already published indie book even better since we have a shot to sell it?” I had thought about the story for the better part of two years and had some ideas. So I played around and implemented them. It was fun.
My agent took the new manuscript and got a couple of offers. Picador/MacMillan acquired the book. I got a huge editorial note with the story issues that still remained. I responded to that note almost instantly with all my proposed fixes.
Because I never stopped working the story. Around this time, I finished a first draft of another novel.
In August, 2014, a story I wrote in my MFA classes, “Gasoline,” was finally going to see print in BURNT TONGUES, an anthology edited by Richard Thomas, Dennis Widmeyer, and Chuck Palahniuk himself. Coincidentally, or luckily, my re-debut novel THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK (new title and everything) was set to debut just three months later.
My story and my book got Chuck’s attention, and he invited me and a couple other BURNT TONGUES authors to join him on his tour. I found myself sharing the stage with Chuck on Halloween night in Brooklyn as part of his tour for BEAUTIFUL YOU, and it went so well, he told my publisher to send me to Portland and he’d support my events in the Pacific Northwest.
On the plane ride to Portland, I finished a draft of another novel. I had been rotating rewrites of three novel-length projects for the better part of a year up to that point, and it was fitting that I topped off another draft on that plane ride.
I have been asked in interviews before how I find the time to write. I always found that question strange, simply because to me, it sounds like you’re asking someone “How do you find the time to play video games? Or hunt? Or scrapbook? Or shop?” We make time for the things we love to do; we have to find time for the stuff we don’t.
Luck is a real thing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book OUTLIERS doesn’t outright call Bill Gates or The Beatles lucky. They logged their 10,000 hours and achieved mastery. Yet, they were in the right place at the right time so that their mastery had a chance to gain traction, and that’s what allowed them to reach the pinnacle.
I always wonder how my story changes if I pursue publication before I’m ready, or if I cared a lot more about getting published than I did about actually writing. “I thank God self-publishing wasn’t around when I was twenty-one,” Chuck said at one point during the event. The temptation to give yourself instant gratification is strong. But are you ready? Is it the right moment? Are you writing to get published, or are you just trying to write the best things possible over and over again? Are you asking Chuck to read your work, or are you forcing him to notice you?
All of the lucky things that happened to me had a chance to happen because I wrote a lot of stuff and never stopped. As I tried to get that across in the “luck” answer, I stumbled upon the little touchstone that keeps coming up in my articles and answers.
“Give yourself a chance for Chuck to discover you, don’t just ask him to discover you,” I said. “You’re worried about results. You want to be published. I can sense your frustration, and that’s not helping anything. You’ll start bending the process too much, writing for specific audiences or because a genre or story is hot. You can’t write to get published, it’s like trying to hit a moving target and the lack of passion will show up in your voice. It’s all about the process—I don’t care what your job is or what you do in life, you cannot control results. Luck is a factor. Love the process and embrace it. That’s the only thing you can control and it’s the only thing that can give you joy, and guess what, it’s the only thing that can deliver the results you’re looking for. If the process isn’t giving you joy, trust me, getting published isn’t going to fill the void. I’m not just saying I’m lucky, I just love writing stuff and I’ve done it for a long time and finally that four-leaf clover turned up, and here I sit.”
Writers have willed themselves into getting great publishing deals and getting represented. They got rejected sometimes hundreds of times, they shipped off queries to dozens of agents, never took no for an answer, never gave up on their dreams. When I say process over results, I’m not saying to ever stop dreaming or stop thinking you can achieve those things. You can. I always believed I could, and I always wanted to see my work in print. That’s the part of my ego that compelled me to sign that Blank Slate Press contract when some others told me to be more patient. The result was in sight.
But the reason that opportunity arrived is simply because I never stopped loving and doing the process for the better part of twenty years. This is my first published novel, but it’s backed by the hundreds of thousands of thrown-away words I’ve produced since I was a kid.
THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK has not achieved the results that I hoped and dreamed for. It isn’t on the New York Times Bestseller list. It isn’t getting made into a big, awesome Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt. Most people still don’t know who the hell I am.
I woke up this morning and went to my desk. I had a few pages of a work in progress that I had marked up by hand. I tacked them to the bulletin board next to my computer.
Then I sat in front of the keyboard and started to type.