Not Impossible, Just Unlikely

July 24, 2014

I’ve had a few people inquire about my brand as “the impossible author.”  It’s a valid question, and there is, in fact, an answer.  Since there may be others floating around out there who’ve quietly wondered the same thing, but weren’t tormented enough to ask, I’ll explain.


Getting published is not an easy thing to do.  It may come more easily for some than for others, as a result of varying levels of talent, luck and that immeasurable influence of timing; putting just the right piece of work in front of just the right editor at just the right time.  It’s a process of trial and error that requires some level of honestly on the part of the writer to afford a critically objective viewpoint which enables a willingness to receive criticism, and to tolerate what might be dozens upon dozens of rejections.  Most importantly, it’s a process that requires bullheadedness, an indomitable will to climb a mountain for the challenge of reaching (what appears from one’s pitifully limited perspective, at any stage of the game to be) the top.


In the beginning, a lover of literature may reach some sort of an epiphany, wherein writing their own novel is exactly what they are going to do.  Just like flipping a switch.  One minute, you’re sitting there reading someone else’s work, and in the next, the book is dropped into your lap, and you’re pie-eyed and glowing this sudden certainty that writing is your life's calling.  The gates to what had previously been an uncertain and lackluster future have just been blown wide, and this glimmering, new pathway to a land of milk and honey is beckoning you toward the rising sun of a glorious new dawn ...


Okay, so maybe it doesn’t happen quite that way with all aspiring writers.  But I'm embarrassed to admit that that’s pretty much how it happened with me.  And as has been the case with most of the embarrassing twists in my life, it was all because of a girl.


We’ll call her Jenny.  We’ll call her that because that was her name.  I met Jenny at a vulnerable point in my life in my third year of college, after all of my high school buddies had dropped out to start work, or families of their own.  The year was 1993.  For the first time in my life, I was alone. I literally knew no one in that town.  Every weekend, I’d sit in my apartment by myself and listen to the raucous howling of revelers.  After a couple of months in solitude, I met Jenny.  We clicked.  Shortly thereafter, Jenny was my new girlfriend.


Spring semester rolled around, and she and I were going through our line schedules, picking out our classes for the upcoming semester.  I suggested we take an elective together, just for shits and giggles.  Figured it would be fun meeting up with her on campus a few times a week, having a class together, studying for the same exams together.  She agreed.  The class we chose to take together was called, “The Novel.” 


The instructor was Professor Vincent Gillespie.  He was a wizened aficionado of American literature who had me spellbound from the first hour.  His love of the written word was as palpable as it was contagious.  I’d always been a pretty avid reader, from an early age, but what Gillespie brought to my table was an appreciation for the authors themselves, and for the creative process that they’d each undergone while producing their great works.  It was at some point in that semester, while reading Wiseblood, by Flannery O’Connor, that I dropped her book into my lap, and I experienced my life-changing epiphany. 


I was going to write a novel.  I would sell it.  I would become a published author.   


Jenny didn’t last, but the dream sure did.  Over a period of nearly ten years, I would come back to that electric typewriter whenever the inkling possessed me, and I’d bang out another page or two of that novel.  By then, I’d graduated, married, and I was desperately looking for work in my biological field.  Just as desperately, I would come home each night from working a long, hard day as a landscaping crew foreman, and I would engage that typewriter, cranking out resumes and novel pages at an approximately equal rate.  One way or the other, I was going to succeed.  I would either land a job in my field of study, or I would become an author, whichever came first.  Well, as it turned out, I landed that job as an environmental scientist.  But little did I know, my obsession with publication was another road still ahead, and it was one that had only just begun.


My first novel that took ten years to write was fucking garbage.  I collected around forty rejection letters before I learned to look at my work objectively.  When I did, I decided that the best parts of the novel were the scary parts.  The rest was crap.  Relocated to a new city, in my new career, I eventually came to the painful conclusion that all I’d done over the last ten years in writing that book was to have learned something about my strengths and my weaknesses.  That, and I knew that my first novel was never going to sell.  It was a junker.  The path ahead looked pretty simple.  I could either give up, or I could start writing a second book that showcased my strengths as a writer.  Being far too bullheaded to give up my dream, I returned to the keyboard, and after about two years, I completed my second book.  This time, it was a horror novel.


Marketing that second book was a dreadful prospect.  I’d already tasted failure and rejection, and I was not eager for that bitterness again.  After waffling around for about a year, reading countless books on how to sell your novel, going through hundreds of pages of agents, editors and publishing houses, I came up with what was probably a common plan, to send it first to around fifty agents, in waves of five or ten, then if that failed, move on to the biggest houses, and work my way down to the small press.  The idea was to maximize the potential earnings of the project, by focusing first on the most lucrative avenues, then pairing away opportunities until I’d reached what I perceived as the last rung on the publishing ladder.


After being rejected or ignored altogether by around fifty agents, I approached the biggest houses, took a few rejections there, and then it hit me … I was doing it all wrong.  I was working the system backwards.  Once again, years of work had been spent only to teach me a painful lesson.  This time, the lesson was in writer’s etiquette.  I had no resume.  I had no publishing credits, no endorsements, no bio, no history whatsoever.  What self-respecting agent or major publishing house would even look at my submission when it was woefully clear that I was a virgin trying to throw a Hail Mary? 


I stopped.  I shut down the marketing process, stepped away from my desk, my piles of proposals, listings, logbooks and rejection letters, and I did something that I'd never done too often during my first three decades, but probably should have.  I called my dad for a little fatherly advice.


My dad insisted that I could not give up, that I had some potential.  Being the CEO of an advertising agency, with years of experience in working with talented writers, he was qualified to judge, even if he was still my dad.  We were standing in a Kansas City parking lot one afternoon, having just had lunch together, and he suggested that I start again, but start smaller this time, maybe look around to see how other horror writers got started, maybe try to sell some short stories, build that resume, work my way up, then take another shot at selling a novel.


There has never been better advice given me, nor is there any better advice that I could give.  Writer’s write.  If you’re sacrificing your love for the craft in your effort to throw a Hail Mary, then you’re not learning anything.  You’re not building your skill set, or your resume.  You must start small, and fight your way, tooth and nail, up that mountain, one small step at a time, just like all of the best authors have always had to do.


I joined a local writer’s group, the national Horror Writers Association, and a couple of online critique groups.  I networked, approaching other writers for the first time.  I began to study prose, instead of just reading it.  I looked for formulas, studied the placement of character hooks and plot revelation, metaphors, alternative viewpoints, and unique methods of successful wordplay.  Most importantly, I was writing, every free second that I could seize, just about every night, sometimes until three or four in the morning.  For the first time in my life, I was wide open to criticism and self-improvement from outside my own little vacuum.  That is key.  Over the years, I’ve seen so many other writers with potential drop out of the game and gravitate toward self-publishing because they could not take critiques and rejections.  And, ohhh, do I ever understand the appeal. 


When you’re selling short stories, fighting your way up that mountain, and you can’t seem to break through that last layer of ice no matter how hard you’re bashing your head against it, it’s so damned frustrating.  It's hard to keep believing in yourself, to keep the faith that your talent will eventually prevail in the traditional game of publishing, when so many options for self-publishing are so readily available.  But I never could go that route.  I didn’t have the stomach for self-publishing.  For one, getting published had long ceased to be about the thrill of seeing my book in print, and it had long ceased to be about the money (by now, I knew better).  This was about validation.  It was about being chosen, over countless others in that slush pile, to receive the greatest honor that an aspiring writer can imagine.  That’s what it was about for me, then, and that’s still what drives me forward, now. 


It's always been about validation, for me.  I needed to validate that my effort was worth it.  I needed to know that I had some genuine talent, and the only way that I could ever be sure of this was by proving it to myself, by winning the toughest competition that a writer can enter.


I’d written and sold around twenty short stories by the time I’d completed my third novel.  It was to hit the marketplace yet again.  Many years had passed, but at last, I had a beefed-up resume.  I had some blurbs and endorsements from the editors of magazines and paperback anthologies.  I’d shared space in those books with established authors.  But still, I was still scared to death to send that book out, and maybe fail again.


By this point, I had a seven-year-old son, an eleven-year-old stepdaughter, and I’d invested almost twenty years into this crazy dream that struck me broadside, way back in my third year of college.  I had some gray hairs, and some wrinkles around my eyes. The exuberance and fanatical passion of the neophyte that had once filled me, whenever I used to saddle-up to that electric typewriter, had long since been replaced by thick skin, a measured methodology, and a calm resolution to press forward.  I'd matured.  Hopefully, so had my writing.


Writers all around me had fallen out of the game.  Others had succeeded.  I met an established writer at a party one evening.  I learned he’d sold a few books in the thriller genre.  I picked his brain for a little advice on my upcoming endeavor, and after a few drinks, he had a heart-to-heart with me.  This little interlude occurred just days before I’d planned on taking my third novel to market. 


This is what he said to me:


“Mike, first off, you deserve a pat on the back.  There are millions of people in this world who want to write a novel, but there are only a few thousand who actually sit down and do it.  Of those few thousand who complete that novel, around maybe fifty will actually sell it.  The ones who do, generally sell their novels if they’ve written into a genre that is most likely to buy a book from an unpublished author, and the most likely genre is ‘thriller.’  If you look through any writer’s guide to publishing houses, and look at what genres they publish, you will find that the thriller genre is common to most all of them.  That’s why more thrillers are sold than anything else, and that’s exactly why I write thrillers.  You say you write horror?  When you look through that same writer’s guide to publishing houses, what genre is least represented?  Horror.  Out of a hundred publishing houses, you’ll only find one or two who publish horror.  You might find fifteen or twenty who publish horror altogether, in that book of three-hundred pages.  What I’m basically trying to say to you is this: you have already chosen one of the most difficult goals that this world has to offer, by trying to write and sell a novel.  But you’ve gone on to choose the most difficult genre of all, because those few houses who publish horror are going to be so goddamned selective, and the competition is going to be so fucking intense.  I'm only being honest, but I would have to say that the goal you’ve set for yourself, as an unpublished author, is just about impossible.”


He patted me on the shoulder, took a drink, and advised me to start writing a thriller.


As I watched him walk away, I was reminded of a statistic that I’d once read, several years before that conversation.  “If you haven’t accomplished your dream, by the time you’re thirty-two, statistically, you never will.” 


I was approaching the age of forty, and that burned.  It didn’t burn in a humiliating or a defeating sort of way.  It burned like a hellfire in my gut sort of way, driving me harder than ever to prove them wrong -- all of them -- the writers who'd lost faith in the system and dropped out, the writers who diverted their efforts into alternative avenues, and especially those writers of bullshit statistics that say that I will never accomplish my goal after the age of thirty-two.  If what I was doing was “impossible,” then I was going to be an impossible author. 


Hell, I’d been impossible all my life.  Just ask my parents.  Or my friends.  I’m blessed or cursed with this quiet bullheadedness that once earned me the nickname “Captain Ahab” during a shouting match with an old partner.  If you dare to tell me that what I’m doing cannot be done, then you’ll have inadvertently flipped a switch in me that cannot be undone until I’ve proven you wrong.  It’s a terrible quality, but it’s probably my best, to which I owe most of my life’s successes.  That conversation was the last straw.  I'd either do it or die trying.  But it wasn't going to happen with book number three.


I think I sent that book out to only two or three houses before I decided that it wasn’t good enough to spearhead my next assault on that layer of ice that was keeping me trapped beneath the surface.  I needed a brilliant idea.  It had to be something huge, something mainstream, something that would appeal to all walks of life, something that had never been done, but obviously should have.


My idea came to me while sitting at a four-way stop in Greenwood, Missouri. 


My eyes bugged right out of my head, when I realized that what I had churning in my head had never been done before.  In a marketplace obsessed with reinventing classic icons with a supernatural twist, no one had thought to write the dark origin of Santa Claus—we’re talking the original, Austrian Santa Claus, complete with his original cast of devilish counterparts.  Why had no one attempted to explain the disappearance of this host of fiends who once antagonized him, or the polar citadel, or the sleigh and flying reindeer?  Where was the epic backstory?  The idea was huge!  It had massive legs and mainstream appeal. It could easily be adapted into a series, if I left some loose ends hanging. It was exactly the idea that I’d been searching for, and for the first time in my life, I was ready to handle it!  I had the resume, the skills, the determination and the confidence that I could and would prove to all the naysayers, and myself, that I hadn’t wasted twenty years of my life.


KRENGEL & THE KRAMPUSZ was born, on a chilly February afternoon, at that four-way stop in the little town of Greenwood, Missouri.  I wrote the book in four months.  Then, I sat on it, scared to death of failure, as always, for five more.  Something was different this time.  This book was going to sell.  I knew it.  But it was just that certainty that made this fourth trial so important, because if I was wrong in my certainty, and I failed again, it was time to give up my dream.


In late October of 2013, I worked up the nerve to send it out to just one publisher, who was currently open to submissions.  I gave them exclusive consideration.  Severed Press replied, one week before Christmas, and they offered me a contract for my novel. 


I read that letter, and I cried.


Nothing is impossible, just unlikely.


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